AMITE — The Tangipahoa Parish sheriff and parish government are lawyering up for a possible battle over jail expenses in the wake of rising law enforcement costs and a failed sales tax proposal that would have funded renovations or replacement of the aging facility.
State law designates the sheriff as the parish’s jailer, responsible for the facility’s operations, but parish government must provide and maintain the facility as well as pay for the care of parish inmates.
“Where it gets complicated is that sheriffs and parishes have, on occasion, tried to work out different formulas for how to do that,” said Jay Seale, attorney for Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards.
Edwards and Parish President Gordon Burgess for years have agreed on how certain jail-related expenses would be covered. When they jointly sought a half-cent sales tax in 2013 to renovate the jail or build a new one and to fund its operations, they agreed the new revenue stream would cover both entities’ expenses without the need for any reimbursements between them.
But when the tax proposal failed, and as the sheriff’s funds tightened, Edwards was no longer in a position to pay some of the expenses he had previously agreed to cover, Seale said.
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Seale sent parish officials a letter to that effect on Dec. 1, advising the council and president to include some of those costs in the parish’s 2015 budget. The changes included shifting to the parish the expense of providing a clergyman and a dietician and no longer sharing equally the costs for medical and maintenance personnel.
When the parish did not pick up the tab for those expenses starting in January, the sheriff sent another letter March 17, calling attention to the $123,000 in bills that had piled up thus far.
Burgess said Tuesday the parish cannot afford to take on the added costs. Parish government’s projected $2 million in jail-related expenditures this year — for maintenance, improvements, utilities, supplies and the per diem rate for parish inmates — already account for 15 percent of the general fund budget.
“We just don’t have any more funds available,” Burgess said.
After a half-hour executive session Monday night, the Parish Council voted to authorize Burgess to seek outside legal counsel on the matter.
“I’m sure we’re going to be able to work things out,” Burgess said Tuesday. “We’ve just got to take a look at it and see who’s responsible for what expenditures.”
Seale said a 1982 state court appeals case from East Baton Rouge Parish made clear the responsibilities of each entity. In Amiss v. Dumas, the 1st Circuit said the parish is responsible for “the expenses of establishing, maintaining and operating the jail and for all the expenses of feeding, clothing and providing medical treatment to the prisoners while the sheriff has the duty of operating the jail and seeing to it that the prisoners are properly cared for, fed and clothed.”
Based on that court decision, Seale said, the parish should be paying the total cost for the jail nurses, physician, medical records system, medical liability insurance and maintenance workers, rather than splitting those costs 50/50, as the two sides had previously agreed.
Seale also contends the parish should pay a pro rata share of the jail’s actual food costs, based on the percentage of the jail population made up of parish inmates, even if that cost exceeds the per diem rate of $3.50 set by state law.
“One of the reasons why parish government may want to have counsel appointed is they may want to ask the court to look at that again,” Seale said. “But coming out of the 1st Circuit, and with all the other cases citing that decision favorably, I can’t imagine it’s going to produce a different answer.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.