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County Council, September 11

Council struggles with ways to balance the budget
Not happy with cuts for DEODAS, or charging for municipal offenders
Warwick Jones

It has not been easy for staff. They were tasked by Council to find ways to cut $3 million out of costs so the County could balance its 2009 budget. The trouble has not been finding ways to cut costs. It has been getting Council to agree to the cuts. And indeed, Council member Schweers voiced his concern about Councilís reluctance to accept staff recommendations.

Discussion on the two items relating to deficit reduction on the Finance Committee agenda took up most of yesterdayís meeting.

Proposal to cut Intensive Family Services
The first item related to Intensive Family Services (IFS) which is part of DOADAS. IFS provides alcohol and drug counseling to clients and their families in their homes. It sees about 100 -110 outpatient clients a year and about 300 family members. The Service provides a needed social service but as staff noted, Medicaid, which pays for part of the costs, has tightened its billing requirements. Expenses of the agency have also risen largely because of higher gasoline prices. Staff also stated that the services provided by IFS could be provided to some extend by other agencies.

Council member Darby supported by Council member Pryor was not happy with the recommendation to close the Service. It well may go a large way in meeting the $300,000 cut in spending required from DEODAS. But it would leave a big hole in the social services provided by the County. They asked that the staff go back and consider other ways to cut $300,000.

Council agreed to task Staff again though it is not certain they will come back with an acceptable alternative and that the IFS will continue unscathed.

How about charging the municipalities for those incarcerated for municipal infractions?
The other item was raised by Council member Thurmond and only for discussion. But it was of sufficient import to draw Mayor Summey of North Charleston to the meeting. And he declared if Mayor Riley (of the City of Charleston) had known of the discussion, he too would have been there.

The proposition of Council member Thurmond, on the face of it, made great sense. If the County was holding citizens in jail on municipal charges, then why werenít the municipalities paying for the costs of the incarceration? But as the subsequent discussion revealed, it was not so simple.

No enthusiastic support
We shared the view of Council member Inabinett. As the discussion wound up, he declared that he didnít really understand it all and was reluctant to fool around with the present arrangement. And our reading of the body language of the Council members, he had their support.

We wonít attempt to capture the intricacies of the arrangement presently between the State, the County and the municipalities in relation to charges for those incarcerated. (We too donít fully understand them) From the discussion, it seems the State has imposed many obligations and the bearing of costs in not straight forward. Mayor Summey was passionate, even threatening, in his opposition to any proposal to charge municipalities for municipal offenders. He spoke of the Stateís claim on a major part of fines, the charges his City were already bearing and that in some cases, if the County imposed a fee, the double charge on the City.

Municipal offenders only very small number of those incarcerated
But perhaps the most telling reason why there will be little change in the present cost sharing is that the number of municipal offenders spending any time in jail is minimal. Most folk on municipal charges spend no time in jail, and at worst, an over-night stay. As well, many of those charged with a municipal offense are also charged with more serious Federal or State offenses. So in a sense, the incarcerated person is not the responsibility of the municipality.

Council member McKeown widened the discussion asking whether we could get the inmates to pay a higher part of the cost of incarceration. But this would not work either, it seems. As County attorney Dawson said, the range of fines and charges are largely determined by the State, with the final figure imposed by Judges acting under the law. It is largely beyond the power of the County to increase such fines and charges.

And so the Council moved on.