The City of Fulton’s prisoners will no longer be housed in the local jail following a dispute over billing between city and county officials.
The Fulton Board of Aldermen have instructed Chief Mitch Nabors to transport people arrested by the city’s police department to the Tishomingo County Jail in Iuka. The city will pay $20 per day per person to house prisoners there. Transportation to and from the jail, a round trip of just over 90 miles, will be the responsibility of the Fulton Police Department.
The decision comes after city and county officials failed to reach an agreement over a recent increase in the fee Itawamba County charges the City of Fulton to use its jail. According to a 1987 agreement between the two, the city pays the county $7 per person per day to house prisoners in the county-owned jail.
In January, the county board sent the city an invoice charging $25 per prisoner per day for housing Fulton’s inmates during the month of December. The total bill was $7,025. The following month, the county sent an invoice for $8,475 for February’s inmates.
It was a significant jump in cost from previous months. The city paid the county $999 to house its inmates in November. The month before that, Fulton paid $1,072.
Fulton leaders budget approximately $12,000 in jail expenses each year. The bills for December and January alone surpass that.
City leaders claim they knew an increase in the cost of housing Fulton’s inmates was inevitable, but said they understood the rate hike wouldn’t take effect until after the county’s long-gestating project to build a new, larger jail was complete. Last April, the two entities signed quitclaim deeds that divvied up a roughly 16-acre parcel of land on Access Road that will eventually house the new jail. That piece of land was originally jointly owned by the county and city.
As part of that agreement, the county took over responsibility for paying the remaining dept on the land.
That agreement came after more than a month of back-and-forth between the county and city as the two groups negotiated details of the arrangement. City officials say part of that arrangement included a spoken agreement that the city would pay more to house its prisoners in the county jail. Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson said the $25 per prisoner charge is the standard for housing prisoners in jails throughout the state.
Itawamba County pays Tishomingo County $25 per prisoner per day to house its overflow inmates in its jail, at a total cost of approximately $20,000 per month. Those prisoners can include detainees from the City of Fulton.
According to Dickinson, the need to use the Tishomingo County Jail is driven by overcrowding at the local jail. The sheriff said the local jail population fluctuates between 20 and 34 people. The jail has a maximum occupancy of 34. Dickinson said he tries to remain below this number, and often will move inmates from the local jail to the one Tishomingo County just prior to a court session, when there could be an influx of new prisoners.
“If I’m running the jail at peak capacity, that means I’m going to have to be transporting people all the time,” he said. “If I’m maxed out, where am I going to put them?”
The Town of Mantachie also houses its prisoners in the Itawamba County Jail at a rate of $25 per prisoner per day.
Fulton leaders don’t take issue with the fee itself, per se, but the timing and suddenness of the increase, which they say didn’t give them enough time to prepare for the extra cost.
During last week’s regular meeting of the Fulton board, the mayor and aldermen repeatedly claimed county officials had reneged on the agreement between the two boards. That the Fulton board agreed to essentially sell off its portion of the jointly owned land to accommodate the county’s project seems to be salt in the city board’s wounds.
“We did what we said we’d do,” Mayor Barry Childers said. “Everything they asked, we said we’d do. And they turned it around on us.”
“This is sad, y’all. This is said,” Ward IV Alderman Brad Chatham said.
The mayor said he didn’t know what to do about the situation. The city, he said, can’t afford the new, higher rate.
“They’re putting us in a bad bind,” Childers said. “I’ve never done business like this.”
Board attorney Chip Mills questioned the timing of the increase, which he said seemed arbitrary.
“I don’t know what’s changed this month that wasn’t happening 10 years ago,” Mills said.
Earlier that day, Childers, Chief Nabors and City of Fulton Clerk Ceburn Gray, appeared before the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors to dispute the increased fees. They said the higher charge blindsided them.
“It was our understanding when [Sheriff Chris Dickinson] came to the [Fulton Board of Aldermen] last year, the new rate of $25 per-day would not begin until the new jail was completed,” Nabors said. “I have a $12,000 yearly budget, and it has been that way for 28 years. I’m already $3,000 over budget.”
Nabors told county leaders if billing continued at the same rate, he was looking at a budget of $84,000 for the year … roughly seven times higher than his current budget.
Fulton officials say they are considering pulling their monthly support of the county’s 911 service to compensate for the increased cost of housing inmates. The city pays the county $4,500 each month to use the local dispatch service, which is owned by the county and operated by the sheriff’s department. The county employs five full-time and two part-time dispatchers. Those dispatchers also operate the county’s 911 system, although the two are not the same.
According to Dickinson, the fee the city pays each month the Fulton Police Department access to the county-owned dispatch system. Should they stop paying that fee, they would also lose access dispatch use outside of emergencies.
“They’re paying for the privilege of using our system and dispatching,” Dickinson said. “They are subsidizing the system. If they quit subsidizing the system, they don’t get the system any more.”
If that were to happen, citizens inside the city would still be covered by the county’s 911 system, which is funded through a small surcharge on every phone bill. Last year, the county collected $232,016 in fees to fund the local 911 system and spent $269,607.
As of last week, the Fulton board was still paying their monthly fee to use the dispatch service.
Dickinson said he believes miscommunication between the two groups is to blame for the misunderstanding, although neither he nor county officials seem willing to budge on the matter.
“I accept the responsibility for not telling them it was coming,” the sheriff said. He he also claimed to have warned Fulton officials that the cost increase was inevitable because of frequent overcrowding at the local jail and rising costs of housing inmates.
The sheriff said he should have been more direct with city officials when that increase was coming.
“My fault is for not telling then, ‘Look, I’m fixing to start charging you,’” he said.
It’s unclear when or if city and county leaders will reach a compromise regarding the increased fees. Following their discussion, Tuesday night, Fulton aldermen voted against paying the bills. However, they also agreed to send a letter to the county’s board of supervisors requesting they appear at a future city board meeting to further discuss the issue.