Commission moves to lay off 73 employees

LaGRANGE – Big changes are coming to Troup County.

On the up side, county employees are expected to get much-deserved pay increase, meaning salaries will be competitive when compared to other counties. On the downside, 73 county employees will begin looking for new work opportunities in the near future.

In a three-to-one vote, with the chairman abstaining, the Troup County Board of Commissioners voted to get rid of the Troup County Correctional Institute, and the work release program, in order to afford implementing a county-wide employee salary increase. The county had three options following the completion of last month’s pay study: to not increase salaries and risk losing employees to better-paying counties, to raise property taxes or to cut services.

The correctional institute and the work release program are both considered non-mandatory services, and represented one of the largest expenses the county could legally cut.

“We would close the (correctional institute) and have the sheriff work detail and work release programs,” said County Manager Tod Tentler. “That is dependent on the sheriff’s willingness to do that, and then he (Sheriff James Woodruff) could work the county inmates – not the state inmates obviously – about 40 to 50 inmates that he could work, so there would be very limited areas that we could use them.

“Instead of having right-of-way detail (where now) you could have seven or eight, you would have three,” Tentler continued. “You would only be able to work those 40.”

Cutting the prison and work release is expected to save the county about $1.57 million. However, those cuts in the number of inmates won’t mean fewer people at the county prison. Because the cuts will decrease the number of available inmates in work release from almost 300 to roughly 40, city and county governments will likely have to find a new way to cover the cost of everything from emptying trashcans on Main Street to removing roadkill from roadways.

“We aren’t just talking about reducing expenses,” said Tentler. “We are talking about cutting services. That is what is going to have to happen if we take this money and do that (cut to the prison and work release program).”

That cut will come with an immediate and obvious effect for citizens who have become used to the numerous projects that the inmates on work release take care of, including, but not limited to, janitorial duties at city and county facilities, disaster clean-up on roads, helping at senior centers, helping citizens with drop-offs at the landfill and assisting at convenience centers.

“The total value that we came up with for the inmate labor – and we did most of these as you can see at $7.85 an hour, which is minimum wage,” said Warden Shane Morris. “Basically, the value of our prison labor is $6, 787,882, so you are getting $6 million worth of labor out of those inmates.”

The maximum capacity for the Troup County Prison is 372 inmates, with 274 inmates from the Georgia Department of Corrections and 98 inmates from the county. The Troup County Prison leads Georgia in General Education Development diplomas through its partnership with West Georgia Technical College and has also hosted classes for inmates to overcome drug and alcohol dependency as well as vocational training.

The department gets paid $20 per inmate per day for state inmates while private prisons are typically paid $45 per inmate per day, but in Morris’ experience the state has been immovable on those numbers, with the last increase occurring in 1999. The department receives $1.9 million from the Georgia Department of Corrections annually. Private institutions typically do not offer work release programs like the one that has been in place at the Troup County Prison since 1996.

“The private institutions, they house more a violent offender then we do, so those inmates do not work,” said Deputy Warren Sadie Lee. “The county prisons house inmates who are a lesser security, who we can allow to go outside, but when you have an inmate who you can’t allow to be outside of the grounds, the private prisons house those. I think that plays some part in why they may pay them more, but they are very vague as to the reasons why.”

The county expects to save on health care costs with this decision, because although the state covers the cost of medical care for inmates after $1,000, the county has to cover that first $1,000 per inmate. Woodruff expected the prison would need to request $750,000 in inmate medical costs for this year prior to the decision.

The state did not express interest in using the facility after the county ceases to use it as a prison, but hopes were expressed that someone would want to lease the building. Other Georgia prisons that have shut down have done so for funding issues often related to building maintenance, though Morris says that the Troup County Prison is in good condition.

Despite all the drawbacks, the county commissioners still felt that the option still was the best of the three options before them.

“That is the reason why we are here, because we need to fund this pay study,” said Commissioner Lewis Davis.

Only one commissioner spoke against closing the prison and cutting services instead of raising property taxes by the three-quarters of a mill required to fund the pay increase. Property taxes were last raised in 2014.

“If you cut their service that they’ve been getting, stuff they’ve been looking at for (years) and see how many you get (complaining),” said Commissioner Richard English. “And I’m going to say this, I am not for cutting service. I am for not laying off employees, and I’m not for closing the correction institute. We’ve come too far to back up, and that’s what we’ll be doing in my opinion.”

The department has 6 correctional officers for the work release program and 67 at the prison for a total of 73 employees for the department. The department also had 12 vacant positions at the time of the meeting.

The county did make note of the fact that the decision had the potential to have a negative impact on the budgets in the cities of Hogansville, LaGrange and West Point who currently receive the labor free of charge.

“From a monetary stand point for Hogansville – 3100 people – that relationship we have (with the work release program) has a monetized value of about $300,000 plus to us,” said James Woods, the Hogansville city manager. “If we were to hire individuals to do all the tasks that these guys do, it would cost us more than $300,000 a year to put that labor on the street, so it has a great impact, and I would think that that impact is substantial in the other two municipalities.
“We’ve heard numbers here (are) upwards of $6 million,” Woods continued. “I think the value that citizens gain by having this facility far outweighs losing it, and the savings it would create.”

That financial impact is certain to reflect on the upcoming LaGrange City Council budget meetings, where the city will have to determine who will now man the recycling center, clean Sweetland Amphitheatre, clean-up roadside trash and many more small projects that may add up in next year’s budget.

It is expected to take over a month to transfer out all the state inmates to state or private prisons. The county expressed hopes of working with the correctional institute staff to assist them in finding new employment and reviewing early retirement options.