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Nickel and Diming County Foregoes Program That Would Have Reduced Jail Population

| August 13, 2013

It wouldn;t help the county's case for a new jail if beds at the Flagler County jail aren't consistently filled. (© FlaglerLive)

It wouldn;t help the county’s case for a new jail if beds at the Flagler County jail aren’t consistently filled. (© FlaglerLive)

With County Commissioner Barbara Revels leading the opposition to the idea, Flagler County will not create a pre-trial release program for non-violent, low-grade offenders, even though the program would save the county money in the long run—and help poorer individuals awaiting trial to avoid costly bonding fees.

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It was an unusual stance for Revels, usually a champion of the poor and a big supporter of the local justice system, although that support has cooled since Revels’s friend, former County Judge Sharon Atack, left the bench.

“I am adamantly opposed to starting a new program this year,” Revels said.

Her opposition was part of an effort by the county to cobble together several hundred thousand dollars in savings  ahead of setting its final tax rate for next year. That property tax rate was tentatively set at a level not seen in recent memory ($8.055 per $1,000 in taxable value), high enough to raise tax bills by close to $100 for a median-priced house. Because of the increase, the county was looking for more savings to manage at least some lowering of the tax rate from that high level.

The daily cost of operating the jail doesn’t go up and down based on the daily population at the jail, Revels said, so pre-trial release can’t be credited for saving money there.

That’s true, but it’s not the complete story.

The pre-trial release program is an idea favored by County Judge Melissa-Moore Stens and Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre. It is intended to help low-grade offenders avoid jail by also avoiding having to post bond to be released from jail, once booked. Many such low-grade offenders end up staying in jail longer than necessary because they’re poor, and can’t afford to make bail arrangements. That’s unfair to them while it unduly burdens the jail operation with inmates it wouldn’t have to contend with otherwise.

Moore-Stens estimates that 30 inmates a month—or an inmate per day on average—would qualify for pre-trial release, a significant proportion, relative to a jail with an average population of between 110 and 130 inmates. (On Tuesday, there were 127 inmates at the jail.) County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin, who has supported the notion of pre-trial release, acknowledged that the program would help the county diminish its need for a bigger jail down the road.

But the county, with Revels’s support, has been arguing that it needs a bigger jail now—and is moving toward building one. A pre-trial release program would not help the county make the case for a bigger jail as sharply, since diminished jail bookings would contradict the claim that the jail is chronically overbooked.

Aside from foregoing the pre-trial release program, commissioners balanced the books by putting off building up their reserves as much as County Administrator Craig Coffey had recommended (he wanted $200,000 set aside for reserves, commissioners agreed to $100,000), and by reducing capital costs (such as phones and computers) $75,000 and investments in the county’s health insurance program (by $25,000). Each of those line-items was proposed by Revels, with a push from ex-Commissioner Alan Peterson, the lone speaker during the Monday meeting’s public-comment segment.

Coffey wasn’t pleased. “We can cut more stuff. You’re going to wind up buying it the next year,” he said. “I would argue, you haven’t saved anything, you’ve just deferred it to next year and all you’ve done is put the money in reserve and bought the equipment next year.”

“Next year I anticipate that our property tax rolls will continue to go up and we may not have to do anything else to our millage to try to move these items forward,” Revels said. Next year is also an election year, when it’s much more difficult for commissioners to raise taxes (though Revels is not up for reelection until 2016). McLaughlin and Frank Meeker are up for reelection.

“It would be my goal next year to not have a millage adjustment if we have a little growth, to absorb whatever challenges we face,” Coffey said.

Revels’s approach didn’t thrill McLaughlin. “I don’t want to increase the cost of doing business just because property values go up,” McLaughlin said. “If the budget is what it is, then the clear picture is to say to Flagler County this is the cost of providing services that we as a county, residents, citizens here want to have. I just don’t like the mode of, well, you know, property values are better, we’ll have more money to spend. I’d rather say no, it doesn’t matter how high the property value goes, the budget is still here. It doesn’t mean the amount that they pay has to keep increasing.”

“I just want to correct for the record that what I said is not what I think Commissioner McLaughlin is intimating that I’ve said,” Revels said.

“I’m not intimating anything. I’m just saying what I’m saying,” McLaughlin said.

“OK, all right, but I’m not talking about when our tax roll gets higher that now we’ll have more money to go out and spend.”

“And I’m not saying you said that, I’m just giving my view on the budget, that’s all. I wasn’t responding to anything,” McLaughlin said. He then added, referring back to Peterson’s mention of Flagler County’s property tax rates climbing in relation to that of other counties: “The whole millage rate comparison is such a misleading thing, it’s so misleading because you say, well, you know, our county is getting close to whatever county. We don’t know what their property values are, what their budgeting, what their citizens require of them. We’re not taking into account other taxing districts within their county. It’s really misleading to compare and for me I just don’t like to compare millage rate to this county or that county.”

County and city administrators, along with commissioners and council members, will typically boast of low property taxes in years when their jurisdiction compares well with others. That’s been the case in Flagler in previous years. This year, officials prefer to avoid such comparisons.

By the end of their meeting Monday, commissioners had agreed to the roughly $400,000 cut in the proposed budget, ahead of two public hearings when they’ll hear from constituents more directly about the tax rate.

“You’ve got the tough decision, and I don’t want to be in your shoes,” Coffey told commissioners. “You’re the ones that run for election and have to get beat up on.”

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14 Responses for “Nickel and Diming County Foregoes Program That Would Have Reduced Jail Population”

  1. Nancy N. says:

    I call bull that the pre-trial release program wouldn’t save the jail money from day one based on the decrease in jail population. Each inmate costs money to feed, clothe and provide services such as medical care to. Not to mention things like water usage, etc. You cannot tell me that having a couple dozen fewer inmates at any given time won’t reduce their costs in all those areas I listed.

  2. anon says:

    It serves no logical purpose to arrest, lock up and hold non-violent offenders in jail. It costs taxpayers money, and more or less puts the alleged offenders lives ‘on hold’ , potentially resulting in a loss of their jobs, leading to decreased tax revenue. The pre-trial release program seems ethically and fiscally sound and logical. The only grounds for opposition appear to be political.

  3. Marissa says:

    Smoke & Mirrors. If we can’t get it from the taxpayers in a referendum, we’ll get it from them in the millage.
    Only it’s illegal! Such hutzpah.

  4. Mike says:

    So its okay to stick it to tax payers all the other years because we will forget by election time, its insane who we have in office. Nate McLaughlin needs to be voted out next year, let him find a real job where preformance is mesured by success, because he sure as heck is not getting the job done in his current position.

  5. Really?! says:

    Article does a good job in pointing out who championed not starting the pretrial program and why. This was primarily a political move, as it doesn’t make sense to not approve a program that will ease the jail population and save taxpayers money. The new County Judge tried to implement it, and this was a way for Revels to get a little payback because her choice didn’t win.

  6. confidential says:

    I have high respect for Judge Melissa Moore Stens and Sheriff Jim Manfre also and experienced lawyer and their favoring the pretrial release motion is a very much common sense one, that will save us money. Given the ridiculous opposition of Barbara Revels in order to prop up and justify the need and construction of a new jail favoring his developer buddies, I hope that Charlie Erickson, Meeker and Hanns get on Board with Nate McLauglhing on passing this motion! No reason to hold in jail non dangerous with minor offenses law breakers, while waiting for trial, just because they are poor and can’t afford bail, sinking them deeper into the crime hole.
    We really need to make some changes in this county commission when some of them are up for re-election simply because some promise one thing in the campaign trail and do the opposite after taking the seat!

  7. Winny says:

    I have started and successfully operated a pre-trial release program to include electronic monitoring and victim monitoring since 1998. We save our county thousands of dollars a year in inmate costs, Also, our requirements dictate that the person who is let out of jail must work, pay fees, no alcohol, no drugs, and so on. They are held to a respectable standard in the community or they go back to jail. The plus to this is that if the person can not conform to appropriate standard of behavior on pre-trial release, then they will have difficulty doing probation. Prison time may be the result. While they are out, they are constantly monitored both by pre-trial release officers, and electronically.
    I would love the opportunity to prove how much these programs can save the county money.
    Commissioners should reconsider this option.

  8. Stop Wasting Tax Dollars says:

    Letting people out through a pretrial release program is in essence letting them out with no accountability…and these so called low level offenders know this. The purpose of any pretrial release program isn’t to save the county money or free up the jail population it is to ensure that those released show up for court. This “taxpayer” funded pretrial release program that was just cut from the budget has been proven time and time again by both public and private studies to be the least effective form of release. In other words, people do not show up for court because no one goes after them if they don’t. The same studies that showed the ineffectiveness of these pretrial programs also showed the significant effectiveness of financially secured bail…commercial bail bonds. When someone is released with a commercial bail bond, they and their family are financially on the hook for their appearance in court. If they don’t show up then the bail bond agent goes and gets them…why, because he has his own money on the line…his own skin in the game. How much does the commercial bail industry cost Flagler County…$0….in fact, commercial bail actually generates revenue for the county through premium taxes paid by the insurance companies. So fund a program that is ineffective and costs taxpayer dollars, or support a private industry that is extremely effective and generates revenue for the county…you decide.

    And by the way, the myth of people sitting in jail not being able to afford a bail bond, is exactly that…a myth. Just open a phone book or look on line. You will see marketing slogans like “no money down”, “easy payment plans”, etc. Commercial bail agents are not like what you see on television or in the movies. They are small family business owners that are basically selling an insurance to the families of those that are accused of a crime. It’s time we use tax dollars for important things like educating our young and keeping our neighborhoods safe as opposed to giving criminals a free ride and ticket out of jail.

  9. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    I’m not clear why the Judge needs the commissioners approval to keep low level offenders out of county jail while awaiting trial? Is she not the one who sets bail? Cannot she not release them on their own recognizance?

    • Ray Thorne says:

      I was thinking along the same lines.,, why not release them afte their first appearance if they are deemed non violent?

  10. A.S.F. says:

    The idea of a pre-trial release program for non-violent offenders looks good on paper but what are the other specifics of the release? Would the pre-trial release only apply to certain offenders who don’t have a lengthy record? You don’t have to commit violent crimes to pose a threat to the community. I would think it would depend on definitions. I wouldn’t want to see HABITUAL non-violent offenders continually ending up back on the streets with no bond, taxing police resources and creating a “revolving door.” Also, without said bond, what would keep those offenders from simply disppearing before deposition? Would they need to be on monitoring devices? If so, what would that cost in comparison to keeping them in jail until (or unless) bond can be met? What is the average length of time non-violent offenders spend in jail before they are brought to trial? Seems to me that there are some questions that should be asked and answered before the county (and the public) says “yay” or “nay.”

  11. Luis Escarra says:

    The Pretrial Release program was design with the intentions of releasing low-income, non-violent offenders. But it has been abuse by accepting other criminal offenders as example, domestic violence,battery aggravated, credit card fraud, insurance fraud, DUI, driving while license suspended, Grand Theft, burglary, just to mention some. It’s all a number game, Pretrial release never mentions what is the cost for failure to appear, and what happens to offenders that violate the program. It’s good for the criminal offender, but what about the victims, why must the victim absorb the lost and the thug walk for free at tax payers expense, “is this called justice?”, what we need to do is get tougher with criminal offenders, instead of allowing them to walk for FREE.

  12. Bull Chip says:

    Every morning this Judge Moore-Stens releases Defendants on there own Recognizance people with drug charges, grand theft and Battery and I’m not talking about a little marijuana. I encourage you to look at the Failure to Appear Rate on the cases that are ROR vs the Commercial Bail cases where someone is held monetarily for their appearance. and then look at the money spent on man hours looking for these individuals plus transportation cost returning absconders to the county jail from other jurisdictions. Not to Mention the fact that some of these offenders are never brought to justice. There is already a system in place its called commercial Bail it works its heavily regulated by the Dept of Financial Services and it hold someone accountable for returning the offenders to court. The Bail Bond Rates in Flagler county average one thousand dollars or less which equals $100.00 per charge for the release of a defendant. is that too much to know that justice will be served??

  13. A.S.F. says:

    People charged with battery and/or Domestic Violence are considered non-violent offenders??? Just asking…

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