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Jail budget power struggle continues
Steven Helton.jpg
Steven Helton

A power struggle continues between two committees in Warren County government, with a third committee refusing to take sides. 

The county’s Legislative Committee met Monday evening and refused to determine which committee should have jurisdiction over Warren County Jail’s budget.

A power struggle is ensuing between the county Corrections Partnership Committee chaired by Commissioner Steven Helton and the Safety Committee chaired by Commissioner Ron Lee.

“You all need to work this out amongst yourselves,” said Commissioner Carlene Brown, chair of the Legislative Committee. “Who are we to say that this is what your committee should be doing or your committee should be doing? It’s not our place to decide a committee’s responsibility. I will say that I can see a duplication. I see a problem, so I’m flagging a problem.” 

Corrections Partnership Committee members voted last week to include the jail’s budget-setting process within its job description as one of its responsibilities. Helton said it was an attempt to “see the jail taken away from Safety and fall under County Corrections.”

Historically, the county’s Safety Committee has overseen approval of the jail’s annual budget and any budget transfer requests made during the year. Lee voiced a desire to keep with tradition and accused Helton of overstepping his boundaries. 

The issue with two committees attempting to have jurisdiction over the jail’s budget, said Brown, will be brought to the attention of the state and legal counsel when her committee completes its task, which is to review and create a set of guidelines that outline procedure and proper conduct during meetings. 

The opposing chairmen were allowed to voice their beliefs.

Lee said Corrections Partnership is a temporary special committee and established to work on issues at the jail, while the Safety Committee is a permanent standing committee and it should continue to oversee the jail budget. 

“Once your mission is accomplished, you go dormant until a problem arises that falls under your committee. Then, you re-awake, re-meet and address that problem,” said Lee. “Once our jail is certified and going good, then their committee would go dormant until something comes up. That’s the difference between a standing committee and a temporary committee. That’s not a committee you want to have budgetary responsibilities on.”

Helton challenged. 

“We are a certified jail. I want to make that crystal clear right now,” said Helton. “What County Corrections works to do is to stay certified and we will always want to stay certified. To me, in my mind, the committee will never disband. It is not a sunset committee, in my opinion, obviously. We are always going to have issues at the jail. It’s a structure. It will age. You fix something and something else pops up. It’s a continual thing.”

Commissioner Robert Hennessee suggested consideration be given by the full Warren County Commission to changing the distinction of County Corrections to a standing committee. 

“Redundancy doesn’t solve anything with two committees doing the same task,” said Hennessee. “I also think that this is not a standing committee. Until it gets to standing committee status, it will not fall under the same criteria. I think the first move would be developing a standing committee of Corrections Partnership and then move forward with your mission statement. I just think it would be premature of us to take any action on this or make a recommendation until that process is achieved.”

Neither committee would have actual authority over the jail’s annual budget. 

“The law states that all budgets are to be turned over to the finance director (Justin Cotten) and then he passes them onto Budget and Finance,” said Brown. “(Cotten) doesn’t have to send it to any of the committees to review. We can say we want to review the budget, but we can’t say they have to allow it.”

Helton agreed, “Ultimately, none of these committees can kill a budget and say ‘no you cannot do it that way’ and send it back to the department director. We would be passing it onto Budget and Finance with a recommendation.”

Warren County Sheriff’s Department has two budgets – jail, its staff and expenses is separate from administration, its staff and expenses. 

“I do want to make it clear that the only portion of the budget that Corrections Partnership is asking to be responsible for is the jail,” said Helton. “The other would remain under Safety. That’s in the right department, but Corrections Partnership meets with the jail once a month if not more. We are very intimate with the organization. We know what the needs are and I feel like that budget fits in our window.”

Changing the distinction of Corrections Partnership to a standing committee could be under consideration by the full Warren County Commission on Jan. 21. The agenda is set, but the measure could be added to the docket by majority vote. 

The Legislative Committee’s next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 28 at 6 p.m.