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Meal deal at Swain jail worth as much as $100,000 annually, new sheriff says

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran has estimated how much his predecessor might have made under the table feeding jail inmates: the figure comes in well over $100,000 a year.


For years, possibly decades, county commissioners paid the sheriff to feed jail inmates and looked the other way as he pocketed any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.

County commissioners ended the practice just before Cochran took office in December 2006. The county now pays only the true cost of feeding inmates, verified by receipts and invoices from the sheriff. The jail is equipped with a kitchen, and trustees do the cooking, keeping labor costs at nothing.

The commissioners were paying $10 per inmate per day for food under the old system. Cochran is doing it for about $2.50 per inmate per day, and says he isn’t scrimping.

“This morning they had pancakes, eggs, bacon and oatmeal. For lunch they had homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and pineapple upside down cake,” Cochran said.

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It is unknown how much former Sheriff Bob Ogle actually spent and how much of a surplus he kept.

“I don’t have any receipts of what Mr. Ogle was spending to feed the inmates,” Cochran said. The county did not require Ogle to provide that documentation.

But, if Ogle was able to feed inmates for what Cochran says he is spending, the county was paying Ogle $140,000 more than it actually cost to feed the inmates.

Cochran wants to see that extra $140,000 stay within the sheriff’s department. He appealed to the county commissioners last week to raise his salary from $39,000 — currently the lowest in the state — to $80,000, which is at the upper end of sheriff salaries statewide.

Cochran is also asking for two new deputies and patrol cars for each of them. The money was already in the sheriff’s budget. It simply has to be reallocated from meals to other line items.

“We would be very close to the same budget,” Cochran told commissioners at their meeting last week. “It will give us more patrol coverage and make this a safer place for you, for me and for the families.”

“We’ll take it under advisement, sheriff, we sure will,” Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones responded. Commissioners did not discuss the proposal or share their thoughts on it during the meeting.

After the meeting, Commissioner David Monteith said he likes the idea of the two additional deputies and patrol cars, but that $80,000 might be a little high for the sheriff’s salary.

The timing of the county commissioners’ decision two months ago to end the lucrative meal deal was criticized by some as political retribution against Cochran, a Republican sheriff, for winning. But County Manager Kevin King said commissioners had been talking about it for some time and it was simply an opportune time to do so.

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