The Pulaski County sheriff's office and Quorum Court members failed to come to an agreement Thursday over the office's enforcement and detention budgets.
With Pulaski County's revenue limited, some justices of the peace have said they hope to limit increases in the sheriff's budgets. But Sheriff Eric Higgins said such increases are necessary, especially during the covid-19 pandemic.
"I'm being fiscally responsible, and I need them to understand that," Higgins said. "I do believe several Quorum Court members do understand that. It's disappointing that we're going another week, but I'm hoping you can get this budget passed next week."
With revenue down because of the extended closure of the courts in the wake of the pandemic, county Comptroller Mike Hutchens' report to a Quorum Court committee gave the picture of tight finances for the upcoming year if the courts do not come back into full session.
"If you remember about three months ago or so, I told you what I was concerned about was court filings, fees, collections, that kind of deal, because with the lack of court cases and things like that going on, you have less [revenue]," Hutchens said during the meeting.
Hutchens planned with the judges to begin holding court around February at an off-site location, which would allow the county to be able to collect fees. However, the idea may not be feasible.
"I worked with some judges over there," Hutchens said. "We found a location, and there was a cost tied to it, and ... the cost is affordable. We were going to start working with the contract today or Tuesday. Then I got a call from the courts [to] hold off. We don't really have a schedule yet."
Because of the lack of court revenue and an increase in cost for the general election, Hutchens suggested avoiding a raise for county employees this year and ensuring the budgets are financially sound to avoid a deficit.
Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers said he thinks action could be taken to limit sheriff's office budget increases of about $700,000.
At Thursday's budget meeting, Stowers motioned to move some of the line items from the Pulaski County sheriff's office maintenance to general services to attempt to save part of that cost.
"The intent was good in what I was trying to do, and that is to say plumbing is not law enforcement,'" Stowers said Saturday. "Electrician is not law enforcement. The guy that fixes locks is not law enforcement. I'd like to put these functions that are not maintenance-related where all of our other county maintenance is."
Higgins said during the meeting that he thought the idea to move maintenance outside the sheriff's office's direct control could cause problems with accountability, as more than one department head would be involved.
Stowers said he recognized as valid the points the sheriff presented for not moving the budget items, and he thought a weeklong break motioned by Justice of the Peace Curtis Keith would give the sheriff's office time to come up with a compromise to lower the budget cost.
"If they have a plumbing issue at 2 o'clock in the morning, they don't need to get the comptroller out of bed or the director of general services out of bed," Stowers said. "They should have the ability to resolve that issue."
Some of the Quorum Court members at the meeting, including Keith, said they were troubled by the motion made by Stowers because they did not want to micromanage the budget.
"We don't work at the sheriff's department," Keith said. "That's their job, so I wanted to give him all the autonomy he can have, but still recognize the fact that we have limited funds."
During the budget meeting, Hutchens told the sheriff and the committee members that there is something in the works to repair and replace the locks and door-control panels in the jail, issues that Higgins has said are significant.
"I've got some good news for you in regards to that," Hutchens said. "I think I have a way to pay for it next year after the first of a year."
Hutchens suggested the problem can be solved with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds given to the county that can be used to complete projects if allocated to the general fund.
During a specially called meeting of the Quorum Court in October, Higgins told members about the mechanical issues in the jail that may have contributed to some staffing problems and insecurity within the jail.
In addition to the easily broken locks, sheriff's Maj. Toni Rose said plumbing and door switchboard issues began in October because of old equipment.
Charlie Hodge, assistant maintenance supervisor at the jail, said the newest parts of the outdated computer system running all the jail's doors was purchased in 2012, but that failures with the system have rendered many buttons requesting deputy assistance useless.
With some of the cameras being out as well, a staff member could get stuck in an area for some time with no way to contact a door operation, according to the two.
Hodge also mentioned that, if a system had to be reset to regain control, then all the doors in the part of the jail that was reset could be opened simultaneously.