Tulsa’s county jail is once again facing a budgetary crisis; more accurately, it never stopped. As early as January, Tulsa city commissioners became aware of the department’s economic struggles, most notably its inability to pay its own staff.
Instead, these staff members found themselves on the payroll of the sheriff’s office. This was one of many controversial decisions meant to act as quick fix rather than a long-term solution.
Tensions rose high after commissioners attempted to persuade Sheriff Rick Weigel to utilize the nearly $1.5 million belonging to the sheriff’s office cash fee fund to pay the jail’s debts. Weigel announced his resignation soon after and was replaced by Michelle Robinette, who quickly made the jail’s budgetary woes public.
The crisis made headlines again in June when the department’s shortage of funds meant a week of jury trials — scheduled to be the last before summer — were postponed. The county lacked the funds to provide jurors the required $40 for their cooperation. These trials did not resume until Aug. 29th.
Over the months that have passed since, the department has found no definite solution to its budget crisis. Administration at the county jail has vocalized its desire for more staff members, while the sheriff’s office has elected not to replace many of the deputies leaving the jail.
Rather, department officers are being hired at significantly lower wages. As a result, workers are taking up the same obligations for less pay — estimated $34,000 less. Despite this, payroll increased 4 percent just this year, reaching a cost of 25 million dollars.
Dan Witham, a member of the Sales Tax Overview Committee, had a disappointing diagnosis. “The jail,” he says, “will always have budgetary issues.” The Tulsa County Budget Board reported having to allot approximately half a million dollars from the funds intended for public parks, legal, and IT to the jail. If this weren’t vexing enough, many claim the city of Tulsa isn’t pulling its fair share of the subsidization.
The board has reached a degree of consensus regarding one issue, at least: the planned expansion for the jail can only worsen the department’s spending and deepen its debts. The project’s estimated costs were unrealistically low, board-members claim, and now they suffer for their optimism. The intent was to have the expansion paid for through sales tax, but so far this hasn’t been sufficient. The jail has already failed in its goal to repay the debts it accumulated while providing inmates with medical care by Monday.
Sheriff Vic Regalado has enacted several different steps to fund the expansion, among them a new contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that would permit the jail to hold inmates facing immigration charges. He’s also taking over the jail commissary and intends to cut costs by purchasing cheaper cars for the detention officers, and permitting fewer to be taken home by employees. Regalado, unlike his hesitant predecessors, will be dipping into the sheriff’s financial reserves for $1.2 million.
Jail trustee Mumodou Ceesay offers a unique solution: diminish the population of the jail. “The people who are not supposed to be there, not a threat to society, they should not be in that jail. If we reduce the population by 300, 400 people, in a year, the cost of running that jail would be substantially manageable.”
Oklahoma, it’s worth noting, has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States, a standing which can only worsen the county jail’s financial predicament.