Weeks following an escape at the brand-new Swain County jail, county commissioners agreed to an emergency appropriation of $139,000 at the request of Sheriff Curtis Cochran.
Cochran asked commissioners for the money at their meeting Monday (April 6) to cover the costs of things like unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.
The county is already shelling out $454,000 per year to cover the cost of the loan on the $10 million facility. And in September of last year, commissioners agreed to provide $205,000 for five new staff positions to get the jail up and running.
The $139,000 doesn’t include another $40,000 that will likely have to be spent to replace the locks at the jail if a key used in the March 21 escape of inmate Jeffrey Miles isn’t located, Cochran said.
Swain’s fund balance is currently at 9 percent, barely above the 8 percent minimum mandated by the Local Government Commission.
“Do you feel like we could really justify adding $139,000 to our budget?” asked Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay on Monday.
County Manager Kevin King said Tuesday that the approval of Cochran’s request will bring the fund balance dangerously close to the minimum amount that is mandated.
Cochran said he simply didn’t anticipate the exact costs of moving into the new facility.
“We moved into a brand new facility, and we’ve had to buy things that we honestly just didn’t budget for when we moved in,” he said.
Cochran said he’s already shifted some staff positions in an effort to cut costs. The move will eliminate two positions at the jail and add a school resource officer position.
“We’re just trying to move people around to get the most effectiveness, without hitting me in the back pocket or you in the back pocket,” Cochran told commissioners.
Commissioner Philip Carson questioned whether Cochran could benefit from more jail staff to provide extra security, in lieu of Miles’ escape.
“Have you considered an extra set of eyes in that control room per shift?” Carson asked. Jailer Anita Vestal is accused of helping Miles plan his escape. She was the only one in the control room watching over the cells when the escape happened.
Cochran said he would welcome extra help, but has no money to pay for it.
“I would not turn down extra eyes, but that monkey’s on your back if you want to fund it,” Cochran said to the board.
When commissioners built the jail, they made it bigger than necessary to house Swain’s inmates. They hoped to house inmates from other counties and subsidize the cost of the jail. The 106-bed facility is double the size of the old jail and has plenty of extra room.
“As (Cochran) gets more and more inmates, more and more money’s going to come in,” said Commissioner David Monteith.
Cochran said the number of inmates in the facility has already increased.
“When we moved into the new facility, we had 28 inmates,” he said. “Today, we have 56.”
According to Cochran’s office, most of those are from Swain County. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only out-of-county entity housing its inmates in the jail.
Commissioner Steve Moon asked Cochran about the maximum number of inmates that could be held at the jail.
“What’s keeping us away from that?” Moon asked.
Moon’s question was met with a peal of laughter from the audience. Though not said outright, it seemed implicitly understood that the escape of an inmate has likely been a deterrent to other counties’ desire to house inmates at Swain’s facility.