Out of money

Sheriff says budget for inmate medical care is gone

Medical jail furloughs and baby delivery bills were the talk of the Blount County Budget committee Monday evening.

At issue was $8,700 in medical bills the sheriff’s office paid to deliver the baby of a woman who was 8-months pregnant when she violated probation by testing positive for cocaine.

Sheriff James Berrong said the medical budget for 2007-08 is $500,000 and the sheriff’s office has spent $465,735 caring for inmates since July 1.

“It’s an issue we have problems controlling. We try our best to keep our costs down,” he said. “I’m informing you we’re out of money. To date we’ve spent all that’s in our budget.”

County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he understood some inmates could be furloughed if they weren’t escape risks and thus they would pay for their own medical care while out of jail custody.

“We always try to ask the judge if we can furlough individuals. We try to get them furloughed before we have to send them to the hospital,” he said. “Anytime we have an inmate, the judge has the right to furlough them.”

Berrong mentioned one inmate, a female who was arrested on Sept. 13 for violating the terms of her drug court probation. What was different about the inmate was she was pregnant when she was arrested and had a C-section scheduled for Oct. 22.

“She tested positive for cocaine with drug court. When she came for her drug test she was 30 to 40 days away from having her baby,” Berrong said.

The sheriff said in this particular case, the furlough was refused and deputies had to take her to jail when it came time for her to deliver. “The county incurred a large expense. She developed complications on Oct. 26 and had to be transported again. Furlough was granted at that time,” he said.

While the sheriff never mention the judge by name, records showed the judge in the case was Circuit Court Division II Judge Mike Meares.

When asked about the case, Meares confirmed he denied the inmate furlough.

“Anytime someone can be furloughed safely, the court accommodates the jail’s request. On this particular case, when a mother is 8-months pregnant and ingesting cocaine, it does great harm to her unborn child,” Meares said. “The money saved by preventing the birth of a crack baby far exceeds the cost of keeping this defendant in jail an additional 60 days.”

Berrong said non-violent offenders are always considered for furlough. “Historically judges have always taken the sheriff’s office recommendation,” he said. “We’re not going to ask for a furlough for someone who’s a threat to society.”

The sheriff told commissioners and budget committee he wasn’t getting personal. “I’m not the judge. There’s a decision-making process but $8,000, $10,000 and $20,000 adds up to a tremendous amount of money,” he said.

Berrong said $8,700 was spent the first time. The sheriff said Medicaid paid for $23,823.25 for the second trip.

Assistant chief deputy Jerry French described the medical funds situation at the jail as dire.

“When we run out of funds, we can’t pay bills. We’re holding bills that need to be paid. There’s a $500,000 budget and we’ve spent $464,000,” he said.

“This is by far the worst year we’ve encountered because of expenditures,” Berrong said.

The mayor lamented that often the state doesn’t reimburse as soon as commissioners would like them to. “Last year we had high hopes we would get reimbursed. I believe the state must step up if they’re going to keep putting the burden on local tax payers and commissioners.”

Berrong said this year has been bad for medical costs at the jail. “Last year we spend $550,000 for 12 months and that was the most we had ever had,” he said. “This year it has just bloomed out. Something just happened. With some, they’ve not gotten furloughs, and, when it comes to medical care, we are obligated to provide medical care.”

Meares said anyone who questions whether he is a fiscally conservative should look at the drug court budget for 2008 versus 2007.

“It’s gone from $174,000 to $119,000,” he said.

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