COVID Drives Up Costs at Jefferson County Jails

Lt. Rodney Jones, of the sheriff department’s support services and finance office, spoke to Jefferson County commissioners during a committee meeting 8.30.21. (Photo by: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

What looked to be a $500,000 cleaning bill for a month raised the eyebrows of Jefferson County Commissioners during their committee meeting Monday morning.

The sheriff’s office had asked for more money during the final weeks of the 2020 fiscal year. The apparent reason was a hefty cleaning bill at the two county jails.

But commissioners learned that increased expenses for feeding prisoners brought on by pandemic protocols contributed to the large request.

Lt. Rodney Jones, of the sheriff’s department’s support services and finance office, said standard practices of stocking water and juices in large containers, which helped to save money, couldn’t be used amid concerns over COVID-19.

“Those other items that we’re talking are cleaning, which would get us through the end of the fiscal year, but also the food,” Jones said.  “We’re having to purchase individual waters, individual juices, plastic plates, forks, knives … that we have to throw away. All those things increase our costs.

“That’s what has driven that need for extra for the food to get us through the rest of the fiscal year,” the lieutenant said.

“When we’re talking about cleaning the jail, we’re talking about two jails at a minimum of three times a week at least to keep breakouts from happening,” he added.

The expense, Jones said, also includes the cost of vaccinating inmates who want to be vaccinated. The requested funds would take the sheriff’s department through the end of the fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.

Joe Knight, who chairs the commission’s finance committee, wondered whether the amount sought might not be high. Jones said no, adding that both jails can spend $55,000 to 57,000 a week.

“Getting that cleaned for the rest of the month, the whole month of September, plus this week, you’re talking over $125,000, $130,000,” he said.

Deputy County Manager Cal Markert told commissioners he’s been advised that the expenses can be reimbursed by FEMA.

“If the sheriff will work with us on their documentation, we can get that back right away,” he said. “If not, we will be going for the recovery funds. We wanted to try FEMA first and not to use our recovery funds.”

Commissioners ultimately moved the request to the agenda of Tuesday’s commission meeting, requiring the sheriff’s office to provide an itemized list of expenses.

Monday’s committee meeting was the first since commissioners named Markert to succeed retiring Tony Petelos as county manager. Markert took the seat at the end of the table that is normally occupied by Petelos.

Petelos, the only manager Jefferson County has had, continues in that position through the end of this fiscal year.