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Columbia County to reimburse portion of payroll paid out of jail fund for three clerks

As the jail levy renewal approaches, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office has made changes to how some expenses are split between jail and enforcement operations.

Before the Columbia County Jail operations levy was first approved in 2014, some county residents were concerned that the levy funds would be used to replace general Sheriff's Office funds used in the jail, allowing the office to spend more money on enforcement without addressing the supposedly dire funding needs in the jail.

To that end, the Jail Operations Citizens Advisory Committee was formed to advise the county commissioners "concerning the proper appropriation of jail levy funds for operation of the Columbia County Jail."

In the intervening years, JOCAC and the Sheriff's Office have butt heads on how to best accomplish that goal.

Budget documents show how costs for personnel, equipment and supplies are split between the two accounts for jail operations and the rest of the Sheriff's Office.

But over the past year, JOCAC members have taken issue with the way that personnel costs have been split.

Many deputies split their time between the jail, Columbia County Courthouse security and enforcement, which Sheriff Brian Pixley said improves retention compared to working full-time within the confines of the jail.

Supervisory staff like Pixley and Chief Deputy Ryan Murphy, as well as clerical staff, also deal with the jail and enforcement.

Those staff are paid in differing percentages from the jail and patrol accounts.

Since Pixley took office in January 2019, several changes have been made.

During ongoing reviews of his office's staffing, Pixley found that three clerks had been paid entirely from the jail budget.

In a letter sent to JOCAC in advance of the committee's August 2019 meeting, Pixley wrote that he "did not feel this split was valid since they (the clerks) perform functions that are not jail related." Pixley switched those three staff members to be paid 50% from the jail budget and 50% from patrol budget.

Pixley also switched Lt. Steve Salle from 75% jail and 25% enforcement to an even 50-50 split.

Earlier this month, the Columbia County board of commissioners voted to move $190,150 from the general fund to the jail fund to reimburse for three clerks who were paid solely from the jail fund in the years 2016 to 2019, primarily while former Sheriff Jeff Dickerson was in office.

"It was said that if we took care of this particular piece right here, that we go forward and not address anything in the past again ... I really want to go forward," Columbia County Finance Director Louise Kallstrom said at the committee's January meeting.

Since Kallstrom joined the county last year, she has worked with Pixley and JOCAC to examine the Sheriff's Office budgets.

Committee members in part agreed to not dredge up past spending after the clerk payments were corrected.

Kallstrom proposed that jail staff fill out "time and effort" sheets to clearly mark the time they spend on jail and patrol functions.

Pixley said requiring those forms could become a sticky issue with job descriptions and union guidelines.

"It would be a waste of time, that our patrol staff do not have, to stop and keep track of exact time spent on patrol vs jail duties," Pixley wrote to the committee.

The levy renewal is fast approaching: it will appear on the May 19 ballot. The property tax measure will ask for a renewal of the current rate, which is 58 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.

The current levy was approved in 2016 and will expire at the end of the year.

The Columbia County Revenue report recommended moving to form a Public Safety Service District in place of the levy. Local option levies can only last five years before requiring another vote from residents, whereas a district could be permanent.

"It would be nice to be able to look for a different option," Pixley said of the current revenue approach.

In 2019, the jail levy generated $3.16 million. For that fiscal year, the jail also received $2.42 million from fees, permits, fines and service charges, plus a $1.35 million transfer from county funds. Personnel costs ate up most of the jail revenue. The jail draws a large profit from boarding federal inmates.

The Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, has relied on general fund dollars to make up a roughly $2 million gap between revenue and expenses.

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