County board hears jail options – Supervisors searching for cost savings; sheriff says no way

Published 1:58 am Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Panola County supervisors listened to a presentation last week from a representative of a private company with an eye toward privatization of the jail portion of the David M. Bryan Justice Complex on Hwy. 35N, but Sheriff Shane Phelps quickly shot down any such prospect no matter the amount of savings.

“I don’t care if the board tells me we are going to put $300,000 or $800,000 back in your budget, I don’t care,” Phelps said. “Money is not everything.”

Phelps’ declaration was in response to an address by Ed Hargett, president of Corrections Management Services at last week’s meeting in Batesville. CMS, which manages the jail in Grenada County and advises other counties on detention practices, is a private company that is attractive to boards because of the cost savings

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Panola supervisors have struggled recently with an ever tightening budget and finding ways to increase the base pay for county law enforcement, specifically the deputies who ride roads and answer calls.

Supervisors Chad Weaver asked Hargett, a veteran of corrections administration and once superintendent of the State Penitentiary system, to discuss potential savings. 

“Everyday operation out there is not an issue,” Weaver said. “It’s just the overall picture. We are trying to find an avenue of savings.”

“We are all looking for more money and we are looking for ways to increase our deputies’ money, but when the pot’s dry it gets tough,” he said.

Hargett told supervisors his company, if chosen to be the administrator for the jail, would work closely with the sheriff and his staff to identify the best currently employed jailers, and potentially hire the same people. He also said his company could save taxpayers money with less food costs and strategically housing federal inmates, through programs that can be revenue generators for small jails.

The sticking point would be in the personnel hired, and was the main reason for Phelps’ objection. Hargett confirmed that starting jailors earn $12.50 an hour and have no benefits, compared to the higher minimum pay in Panola and insurance and retirement.

Based on the current 38 full and part time employees, including nurses, at the jail, along with other measures, Panola County taxpayers could be saved anywhere from the $300-800,000 mentioned by Hargett and the Sheriff – money the supervisors could use to boost salaries for deputies and provide funds for additional officers.

Still, Phelps said the potential savings would not be worth his employees losing benefits, if not their jobs. He also pointed out that housing federal inmates also has a major downside, in that those are often the most dangerous of prisoners who require more officers, by law, when transported to and from hearings and jurisdictions.

Additionally, Phelps said, CMS would not pay for transportation, further tying up deputies

“The thing that sealed it for me as a big no is that I have 32 employees and I’m not going to them,  and tell them that they no longer have a job, and if they do get a job with the company that they will no longer have insurance and retirement,” Phelps said. “Some of them are invested and they are trying to get their 25 or 30 years, and the insurance. That’s why they are out there now.”

“When I heard they pay $12.50 an hour I knew it was wrong for us. You tell me how someone is going to make a living on $12.50 an  hour and still pay for insurance,” he said.

Weaver said he and other board members asked only to hear the private management company’s ideas, and had no intentions of making changes without studying all options. “Ultimately this is the sheriff’s decision, and we know that,” he said. “We are just looking at everything possible to save our budget and do all the things the citizens are expecting.”