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Concerns about overcrowding and staffing deficiencies at the Houston County Jail caused county commissioners to reconsider some aspects of next year’s proposed budget Wednesday.

In a June budget meeting, Houston County Sheriff’s Office leaders requested an additional 10 deputies and eight jailers for the next year. The proposed budget – revealed during a Wednesday work session – included four new deputies but no extra corrections staffing, causing HCSO Maj. Bill Rafferty and Sheriff Donald Valenza to further plead their case.

Rafferty said with a full staff – no vacations or illnesses – the jail employs 12 people to oversee the county’s roughly 400 inmates on a given shift. He added that ratio is significantly higher than the U.S. Department of Justice’s recommendation of one corrections officer for every 10.25 inmates.

Inmates also need transport to medical offices and court, which further detracts from available staff – especially during day shifts, Rafferty noted.

“We’re putting lives in danger,” he said. “I know money is an issue, but safety and liability…”

Valenza said the increase of inmates with mental health issues and the recent creation of a Class D felony designation – punishable by terms of one to five years – have only increased the number of inmates housed at the county jail level. Rafferty and Valenza also requested the construction of two new pods at the jail for the purpose of housing inmates with mental health needs, a suggestion that is currently unfunded in the budget.

Rafferty and Valenza discussed ways the department has saved the commission money during the past several years, including purchasing several new vehicles out of its own funding sources. Commission Chairman Mark Culver said he understood and appreciated their efforts but noted the budget still lacks funding to fulfill all requests.

“This (budget) touches a lot of problems a little, but we’ve got to figure out the funding,” he said. “We need $3 million more at least.”

While the budget work session typically produces a general game plan and consensus, the deputy staffing conundrum spurred a long discussion. Some conversations revealed ways of saving money in the short-term to fund an extra two deputies, but District 4 Commissioner Brandon Shoupe noted those sources may not resolve the multi-year burden hiring staff often places on budgets.

District 2 Commissioner Doug Sinquefield said he believed the issue warranted further discussion before the commission approves the budget.

“I believe some of the requests are vital, especially for the sheriff,” he said, noting he would like to see the budget include two more corrections officers. “When you have 420 (inmates) in cell blocks, anything can happen at any time.”

Culver said officials will continue the conversations and analyze ways to maybe include more funding for HCSO staffing. Commissioners will vote on the budget during its Sept. 23 meeting.

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