Jail costs drop during COVID-19 pandemic

Robert Houk • Updated Apr 22, 2020 at 7:44 PM

A lower head count at the Washington County Detention Center during the novel coronavirus pandemic has helped the county save money on food and utilities, but those costs are expected to rise in the new fiscal year.

Last month, judges sent home more than 100 non-violent inmates who were nearing their release dates to help lower the population in the jail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leighta Laitinen, chief deputy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, told the county’s Budget Committee on Wednesday the move has helped to save money on food, but those costs are projected to rise by another 10 percent in the new budget year. The sheriff’s office is also asking for money to replace water heaters, washers and dryers originally meant to accommodate 350 inmates,

Before the pandemic, Laitinen said the jail’s daily population typically reached nearly 700 inmates.

“Our head count is down now for the pandemic, but it will shoot back up,” she said.

The sheriff’s office is also asking for more money in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, to purchase new radio equipment and computer servers. The budget request also includes $100,000 to replace body cameras, $75,000 for uniforms and bullet-proof vests and an additional $49,600 to replace vehicles.

Sheriff Ed Graybeal also told the Budget Committee that his “department could use a firing range of our own.” Laitinen said the WCSO currently shares a pistol range with the Johnson City Police Department. She said the county has seen its time limited on that range, which has created problems in meeting training requirements for deputies.

“Other departments our size have their own firing ranges,” Laitinen said.

The Budget Committee also heard from officials with the Washington County Election Commission. Election Administrator Maybell Stewart said her office will be conducting two elections in the new budget year — the Aug. 6 primaries and the Nov. 3 presidential election.

She said that number could stretch to three in the next fiscal year depending on the outcome of the race for the 1st District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. If state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, is successful in his bid to succeed Congressman Phil Roe, the governor will call a special election early next year to fill Crowe’s unexpired term in the state Senate.

Crowe represents the 3rd District, which includes all of Washington County and parts of Carter and Unicoi counties.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler also told Stewart he and his colleagues would like to see a firm plan from the Election Commission for the use of the former Ace hardware store it has leased at 220 N. Second Ave. in Jonesborough. Commissioners voted earlier this year to pay $77,500 to cover the one-year lease of the 10,700 square-foot property.

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