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Allocation saves staff -- for now



Published: Sat, January 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The half-cent sales tax could be imposed or put on the May 3 ballot.

YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County's lawyers in a class-action civil rights lawsuit over jail conditions have told a federal judge that staffing will not change for now, because the sheriff has received a temporary allocation of $3.11 million.

After a half-cent sales tax failed in November 2004, Sheriff Randall A. Wellington made plans to lay off 120 deputies to cut his $13 million budget by roughly $6 million. He said Friday that if he doesn't get a $13 million budget appropriation for 2005, layoffs will take place.

"I'm waiting to see what the judge rules and what commissioners do," the sheriff said.

U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd, in an order filed after the class-action lawsuit trial last month in Akron federal court, directed Columbus lawyers Daniel T. Downey and Mark Landes to submit, by Friday, a report on the status of funding for 2005 for the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department. Judge Dowd said he would delay any post-trial final argument briefs until after the report is received and he's had time to consider it.

Downey and Landes represent Mahoning County.

Akron lawyers Robert Armbruster and Thomas Kelley filed the class-action lawsuit in November 2003. The lawyers contend the jail is understaffed, which leads to lock-downs -- prolonged periods of time in which inmates remain confined to their cells.

The allocation

The Downey-Landes report, filed Friday, states that Mahoning County commissioners voted Dec. 30, 2004, to make a $3.11 million temporary allocation to the sheriff's department. The allocation will be amended before April 1, the date when the annual budget for 2005 must be in place.

The Columbus lawyers said that, with the recall of 10 deputies laid off in November 2004, staffing at the jail will remain at 173 while the temporary allocation is in place. They pointed out that 173 is the same number of deputies assigned to the jail at the time of the trial.

Sales tax

The three-member board of commissioners, two of whom were lame ducks, did not impose the sales tax last month after holding two public hearings on the matter. The tax generates $13 to $14 million annually.

The new board of commissioners will hold its first formal meeting on Monday.

Imposing the sale tax or placing the tax on the May 3 ballot may be at issue when the new board meets on Monday "or in the weeks that follow," Downey and Landes said in their report to Judge Dowd.

The Columbus lawyers said the process of holding public hearings on the tax need not be repeated if the new board is inclined to impose the tax or put it on the ballot after analyzing the county's budget needs. They said the board is in the process of scheduling public budget hearings for 2005 appropriations that will likely begin Jan. 19 and conclude Feb. 2.

Conditions

The Akron lawyers, Armbruster and Kelley, meanwhile, allege the jail is unsafe for inmates and deputies alike. They won a similar lawsuit in the early 1990s that established a staff-to-inmate ratio.

The consent decree expired in November 2001. It required the release of inmates if the jail population exceeded the number of guards required for each cell area.

At trial, Judge Dowd heard testimony from deputies, inmates, experts in corrections facilities, the jail maintenance supervisor, the current and former warden and others. The plaintiffs argued that backed-up toilets expose locked-down inmates to hepatitis.

Joe Caruso, assistant county administrator, explained to the judge that the sales tax can be imposed and collected for one year and not subject to referendum if the commissioners' vote is unanimous. If the vote is 2-1, then imposition of the tax is subject to referendum, which must be done within 30 days, Caruso said.

If the tax is imposed, collection would be in April and the revenue would not be received until July, he said.




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