Comptroller: Ala. sheriffs must use inmate-food money only for food services
Current state law allows sheriffs to receive any leftover inmate-food money as a supplement to their salaries
By Eric Fleischauer
The Decatur Daily
DECATUR, Ala. — Sheriffs seeking state funding to purchase food for jail inmates now must sign an affidavit swearing they will use the money only for the purchase of food or for services related to the feeding of inmates, according to state Comptroller Kathleen Baxter.
The affidavit, which on Thursday replaced a previous affidavit that contained no such restrictions, is designed to end the longstanding practice of sheriffs pocketing leftover food money.
Bobby Timmons, chairman of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said the issue may end up in court.
“They’re trying to write law themselves,” Timmons said. “You can’t do that. The only ones that can write laws are the Legislature or Congress. Judges can’t do it, and neither can comptrollers. I’ve never seen where an employee of the state can change the law.”
Timmons said a state law providing that “the various sheriffs of the various counties shall be entitled to keep and retain … amounts received for feeding prisoners” controls the issue, and that it allows sheriffs to personally receive any leftover inmate-food money as a supplement to their salaries.
The state issues monthly warrants to sheriffs’ offices at a rate of $1.75 per inmate per day. The most recent payment issued to Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin, on Aug. 7, was for $21,441. Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell was issued a monthly payment Aug. 9 for $8,044.75, according to state financial records.
In a memo to all sheriffs, obtained by The Decatur Daily, Megan Corley of the Comptroller’s Office announced the change.
“I will wait an adequate amount of time before rejecting Feed Bills sent on the old form, however, starting Sept. 1st ALL Feed Bills must be submitted on the new form provided or they will be rejected and payment delayed,” wrote Megan Corley, a staff accountant in the Comptroller’s Office.
Timmons said the state has a mandatory duty under state law to issue the payments, and that it can’t reject or delay payments based on a sheriff’s refusal to abide by a condition not authorized by state law.
“If I was a sheriff, I’d sign the form and send it in, but I’d probably strike through the sections that (swear to limit use of the money to food expenses). Then it would be up to the comptroller to reject it,” Timmons said. “Then that’s when we go to court and say this person doesn’t have the right to change the law.
"I hate for it to go that way. I hate to tie up court time and hate to have a state employee to be served with a notice to be in court and justify what she said.”
Timmons said most sheriffs would prefer to get out of the business of funding the purchase of inmate food, which he said would ideally be handled by the county or the state Department of Corrections. If such a change is made, however, he said sheriffs’ salaries also should be raised. And both of those changes, he said, should come from the Legislature.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has said he would push for statewide legislation next session that would prevent sheriffs from pocketing leftover food money. He said it might be modeled after a local amendment which Morgan County voters will see on the ballot in November.
The local amendment would prohibit the sheriff from pocketing leftover food money. It also would raise the sheriff’s salary to an amount $5,000 below the commission chairman’s annual salary. The chairman’s salary is $101,276, so the sheriff’s salary under the amendment would be $96,276. That’s up $25,096 from the sheriff’s current salary from the general fund of $71,180.
Mitchell did not return a call Thursday, and Franklin directed questions to Timmons. The comptroller’s action does not affect Limestone County, which since 2010 has had a local law in place preventing the sheriff from personally benefiting from inmate food money.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The change in the affidavit implemented by the comptroller follows a July 11 directive in which Gov. Kay Ivey said certain food-related payments previously paid to sheriffs individually should instead be paid to the county.
“Public funds should be used for public purposes — it’s that simple,” Ivey said in the statement announcing the change in policy.
Attached to her directive was a memo from her Office of General Counsel concluding that sheriffs have no right to personally retain any food-related funds received from the state.
“When the governor sent that out, she didn’t have authority to do that,” Timmons said.
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©2018 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)