Jail overcrowding growing burden on county

By Ryan Lengerich: CNJ staff writer

Curry County Adult Detention Center Director Don Burdine stands before the commission at each meeting and reads a list full of numbers chronicling how many inmates are incarcerated in and outside of the county.

In 2002, he said those numbers averaged about 170 inmates. Last week he reported 340 inmates with 186 in Dickens County, Texas, and 14 in Parmer County.

At about $35 per day for each inmate housed out of county, jail overcrowding has crippled the county budget, leading to tax hikes and pay increases to keep detention workers on staff.

The detention center’s drain on Curry County’s budget ranks as the top county story for 2004 as determined by CNJ staff.
“Everybody wants to be tough on crime and I agree with that also,” Burdine said. “But sometimes we consider the dollar and cents cost to that and the fact that whatever that cost is, is directly carried by the taxpayers.”

The problem has depleted all the county’s extra money and reserves, said Commission Chairperson Kathrynn Tate.
In May, the county approved a 1/8 percent gross-receipts tax specifically to fund the correctional facility. That increase will take effect Saturday.

In September, county jail officers were given a 10-percent raise by commissioners when they were told staffing at the facility was dangerously low.

Commissioners have blamed state-mandated sentencing for much of the problem.

To ease overcrowding, Burdine said a new annex could be ready by March. Tate said the commission has turned to the Legislature and local court officials for help.

“I am encouraged with the new drug court,” Tate said. “Our judges are trying to help us out and our new district attorney is going to try to use more of the (ankle) bracelets and not put everybody in prison that commits a crime of their stereo being too loud, or something small like that.”

Other county news that made waves in 2004:
• When Sheriff Roger Hatcher heard Clovis police officers would receive a pay increase totaling more than $714,000, he immediately worried his deputies would jump ship.
Upon Hatcher’s request, the Commission voted 3-2 in November to provide deputies a raise totaling about $180,000. This moved certified officers to the same minimum salary as Clovis police at $15.45 per hour.
• After 15 years as Curry County manager, Geneva Cooper announced her retirement in September.
Cooper, 61, said she wanted more time with her family.
In November, the Commission announced four finalists to replace her but named former hospital administrator Dick Smith — who hadn’t applied for the job — to the post. Smith, a certified public accountant, was hired because commissioners said they needed his financing expertise for the upcoming budget process.
• It was the year for incumbents in Curry County.
Republicans Tim Ashley, Albin Smith and Pete Hulder maintained their positions in the November General Election.

Hulder ran unopposed while Smith defeated former Clovis City Commissioner Gloria Wicker and Ashley beat out former County Commissioner Paul D. Barnes. Each candidate won with 57 percent of the votes.

• Commissioners continue to debate the details of a proposed events center adjacent to the county fairgrounds.
They unanimously voted it should be covered, allowing for possible motocross events and graduations. In early November the Commission hired Albuquerque-based firm Schlegel Lewis Architects to design the facility at a budget of roughly $3.7 million.

The budget has not been approved, but Tate said recently she expects the project to move forward next year as paperwork continues to be filed.

• Freedom Communications, the parent company of the Clovis News Journal, filed a lawsuit against the county alleging violations of the state’s open meetings and records acts.

District Judge Joe Parker tossed the lawsuit out because of what he said was a procedural error; he said Freedom shouldn’t have sued Curry County, a government entity, but rather the person in charge of delivering the salaries, in this case Cooper. Lawyers for the CNJ then filed a motion to reconsider the ruling, which is pending.

The CNJ attempted to obtain 2003 salaries for public employees for a feature package. Curry County officials did supplied the information a few days after the suit was filed.