Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

April 21, 2013

Upheld by judge

Regional jail authority may prove costly for two counties

The Independent

ASHLAND — At least in the short term, there is no question that the biggest loser in Tuesday’s ruling by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd upholding the creation of the Northeast Regional Jail Authority is the Kentucky Jailers Association. In the long run, however, we fear the biggest losers will be the taxpayers of Boyd and Carter counties.

We have never questioned the legality of more than one counties uniting to create a regional jail authority. Our only concern was the way the fiscal courts of Boyd and Carter counties created the new jail authority with little or no warning or debate and little or no input from either of the elected jailers in the two counties or the residents of the two counties. It was clear from the moment the creation of the jail authority was first brought before the two fiscal courts in public meetings, that this was a “done deal” that had been determined in secret meetings of at least some members of the two fiscal courts.

We suspect both fiscal courts violated the Kentucky Open Meetings law in forming the new jail authority, but that was not the issue in Tuesday’s decision by Shepherd.  Elected jailers in other counties were not in a position to challenge the legality of meetings in which they had no part.

Instead,  the Kentucky Jailers Association was challenging the authority of the two counties to create a regional jail authority. In so doing, the jailers association was revisiting legal issues that had been decided 30 years ago.

When four counties joined together to create the Big Sandy Regional Jail Authority in the early 1980s, the elected jailer in Johnson County filed suit contending he had the sole authority to operate jails in the county and the Big Sandy Regional Jail Authority could not employ an administrator to operate the Big Sandy Detention Center in Paintsville. The jailer lost that case and the Big Sandy jail continues to operate without the elected jailer having an active role.

In a 12-page ruling granting a summary  judgment for the Boyad and Carter fiscal courts and the Northeast Regional Jail Authority and the state Department for Local Government, Shepherd relied heavily on previous court cases involving the creation of regional jail authorities. Shepherd found the interlocal agreement creating the NRJA was a “valid exercise of the authority” granted to the fiscal courts under state law, and that the law “explicitly grants” two or more counties the ability to create a regional jail authority.

In what may have come as a surprise to Boyd County Jailer Joe Burchett and Carter County Jailer R.W. Boggs, Shepherd said he could find nothing in the state constitution or in any enabling statute “that requires the county jailer to supervise, manage or be in any way involved in running the county jail.” 

All the state constitution requires is that all 120 counties elect jailers, but what the jailer does is not defined in the constitution. The duties of the jailer is left up to the elected fiscal courts in each county, the judge said.

While we do not disagree with the essence of Shepherd’s ruling, declaring that the fiscal courts in Carter and Boyd counties had the legal authority to create the Northeast Regional Jail Authority does little to ease our concerns about the wisdom of that creation. Elected leaders in the two counties have yet to say how two counties can save tens of thousands of dollars annually by combining the management of the Boyd County Detention Center in Catlettsburg and the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson. 

After all, there are no current plans to close either jail. Both are fairly new and each county still is paying off the money is borrowed to build the jails. While there may be some economies of scale resulting for managing the two jails as one entity, we can’t imagine it would be much. Either one or two administrators would have to be hired to manage the jails, and each county still would be obligated to pay an elected jailer even if he has no official duties. That would add to the cost of operating the two jails.

However, we don’t think saving money is what motivated fiscal court members in either county to create the jail authority. Boyd Fiscal Court disagrees with Burchett’s management of the jail in Catlettsburg and Carter Fiscal Court members dislike Boggs’ management of the jail in Grayson. Elected officials in both counties saw the creation of the jail authority as a way of stripping Burchett and Boggs of their authority.  That’s their right, of course, but it would have been wiser for fiscal court members to try to defeat Burchett and Boggs at the polls, rather than attempting to do so by creating a new entity.

The creation of the Northeast Regional Jail Authority needed much more public input and debate before being approved. It didn’t get it and, as a result, many questions about the operation of the jail authority remain unanswered.

And with all county officials on the ballot in 2014, coming up with the right answers to those questions may be hampered by local politics.

The creation of the Northeast Regional Jail Authority is legal. but something can be legal without being wise.