By Brian Livingston / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
MERIDIAN — Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie knew this day was coming.
A day in which he would see funding for basic department and county services take a major hit because of other economic problems across the state of Mississippi.
The Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department, along with 33 other sheriff's departments across the state, were told during a meeting in Jackson Tuesday he is no longer able to fund the Joint County/State Work Program. Epps, responding in person to counties' furor over losing payments for state inmates, said the decision is part of a plan to balance his budget.
"I'm not trying to save money. I'm trying to let you know that I don't have money to pay you,’" Epps said during a meeting Tuesday with sheriffs and county officials from most of the state's 82 counties.
The cutoff date for the program will be March 15, Sollie said.
Now, sheriffs like Sollie are wondering if they will have a work force to help keep the roadways and highways clean of litter. At this time Sollie said he has 20 state inmates who are trusties at Hilltop on Hwy. 39 North. Those inmates pick up litter on the sides of roads and highways, provide services for court house clerks, wash county vehicles and provide manpower during natural disasters.
The loss of funds from MDOC, said Sollie, will total approximately $175,000 per year. If county officials decide to let the inmates go back to the state and instead hire a new workforce, at minimum wage for a 40-hour week, it would cost the county $350,000 in wages.
"We have a work session this morning with the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors and I will present this to them," Sollie said.
Epps said he also is going to ask that about 2,000 state inmates be reconsidered for parole in an effort to help the Mississippi Department of Corrections deal with a $29.4 million budget shortfall for the remainder of this fiscal year.
"We believe 25 percent (of the 2,000) can be paroled," Epps said Tuesday.
Epps came to the Mississippi Sheriffs Association meeting at the Law Enforcement Officers' Training Academy to explain that, as of March 15, he won’t have money to pay counties $20 per inmate per day for housing in the Joint County-State Work Program.
Last week, Epps sent a letter to sheriffs informing them that, because of the $29.4 million in budget cuts this fiscal year, he has no money for the program until the start of the new fiscal year July 1.
Epps said counties can keep the state inmates and absorb the costs or he will have them moved to state facilities.
Space is being made available for 900 inmates at the State Penitentiary at Parchman and the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl to house the inmates from the joint work centers, Epps said.
Claiborne County Sheriff Frank Davis expressed concern about inmates returning to the streets early. He said paroled inmates could create more crime in communities.
Epps said the inmate recidivism rate has dropped over the last three years from 35 percent to 30 percent, roughly a reduction of 9,000 inmates a year, saving the state $8.2 million.
Epps told sheriffs that not paying the counties, paroling more inmates and other reductions can cover about $7 million of the shortfall, leaving about $22 million to be made up.
Epps said if the budget shortfall isn’t erased, he could close some of the state’s 17 community work centers, which are different than the county-state work program. Also, he said he is shutting down at least one camp at the Parchman penitentiary.
Several sheriffs and county officials told Epps they have built new facilities or are in the process of building them to house inmates and were counting on the state money.
‘‘We were encouraged to build these facilities,’’ said Holmes County Sheriff Willie March, president of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association.
The state inmates provide free labor to sheriffs in the form of jail support. State inmates housed in county jails also provide free labor to municipalities and counties in building and property maintenance, construction, litter cleanup and beautification projects to roads, parks and other public property.
The state can house 1,466 inmates in county facilities.
‘‘We have 24 (inmate) workers. It would hit us hard,’’ Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.