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Editorial: Prisoner payoff

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

For years, Cape Girardeau County annually salted away hundreds of thousands of dollars into its reserve fund thanks to economic prosperity and conservative budgeting. One year the county took in $1 million more than it spent. The result was a $5 million reserve in the late 1990s.

Those years are gone with the economic boom, and this year county commissioners expect to spend more than tax revenue brings in.

The $10.8 million in funds available to the county this year includes a $650,000 balance from 2003. The county plans to spend $10.5 million on revenue of $10.2 million.

So it is that the $810,000 brought in by housing prisoners -- federal and from other counties -- last year and the expectation of making as much this year have become important ingredients in the county's budget stew.

How much of the $810,000 is profit is difficult to determine because the county has to maintain its jail and a jail staff no matter how many prisoners are incarcerated. But reimbursements for prisoners are making the $450,000 annual payments on the bonds that paid for the jail expansion and then some.

Income from the jail is disbursed into the general fund but provides a substantial offset to the sheriff's department budget of $3.16 million. The sheriff's department and jail account for nearly one-third of the county's overall budget excluding bridge and road expenditures.

Sheriff John Jordan wants the county commission to allow him more freedom to decide how his budget is spent. The commission's decision last month to give the sheriff the extra help he said he needed to maintain a lucrative contract with the U.S. Marshal's Service is an indication that the commission is willing to work with county officeholders on financial matters while preserving the county's fiscal prudence.

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