Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sarasota County Commission pledges jail will stay open:

They blinked.

The Sarasota County Commission indicated it would come up with about $1.2 million Monday night to keep the Venice holding facility open if it had to -- despite a plea to Sheriff William Balkwill to make further cuts in his budget for the jail.

Balkwill has threatened to shut the facility down, claiming he has no room in his budget to fund it.

"We do need the jail," said County Commissioner Paul Mercier, before a crowd predominantly from North Port dressed in red as a sign of solidarity. "If this is a standoff, I'll blink."

North Port City Commissioner Vanessa Carusone encouraged the county commissioners to take money from her city's contributions to the county to cover the costs required to keep the jail open.

"Even with the reduction in your millage rate and the reduction in our millage rate, there's still an additional $660,000 that will be added to your coffers from the city of North Port," Carusone said. "I implore you to take that money and put it toward the sheriff's department budget. Because if there is anything that is needed that cannot be cut, it's the life, safety and well-being of our South County residents."

That's when County Commissioner Shannon Staub fell in with Mercier, despite her earlier input on a motion that would encourage County Administrator Jim Ley to work with Balkwill to find more money in his budget -- as well as other sources -- for the facility.

"I can only speak for myself," Staub said. "I'm blinking. I'm ready. Let's get it done. Get it over. And I'm very sorry that we even had to come to this point."

Not budging

Things didn't start out in such a conciliatory manner. Before the meeting, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta was adamant about two things: The jail must stay open and the sheriff must help.

"We're going to have to figure out a way to keep it open and hopefully we'll get some cooperation from the sheriff to help us do that," Barbetta said. "I can't conceive us not doing everything we possibly can to keep it open."

Barbetta said he learned Venice was willing to withdraw its condition for the sheriff's office to pay rent for the facility, which he saw as a good first step toward coming to a solution.

"So it really comes down to the sheriff's manpower," Barbetta said, hinting Balkwill might make cuts in shifts, hours or jobs.

But when Balkwill came forward to state his case, it was plain to see he wasn't going to budge.

"We're down about 27 positions right now," Balkwill said. "The only way we can (keep the jail open) right now is through overtime."

Balkwill said there are other services his department provides to the county that add costs to his budget. These include working with the fire department, the Sarasota Police Department, animal services, roads and bridges and other internal services for the county.

"We've also cut over 100 vehicles from this year's budget," Balkwill said. "As far as staff goes, I challenge you to compare our staff levels with any other agency surrounding us right now."

Afterward, although he promised he was "always willing to work with them," Balkwill said his budget was too maxed out to subsidize the jail.

"What I heard in there was (the county) was funding this," he said.

By Steven J. Smith Sun-Herald

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