Sheriff tables offer to run Fayette County jail

jkegley@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2012 

  • In a letter to Chris Frost, chairman of the public safety task force, Witt cited reasons for pulling out of discussions to operate the jail. Some are highlighted at right.

Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt has put her offer to run the Fayette County Detention Center on hold because of apparent resistance from the city and insurance roadblocks.

In a letter to Chris Frost, chairman of a mayor-appointed public safety task force, of which Witt is a member, Witt said she would take her offer off the table for now.

But if the city decides it is interested, her offer would stand, Witt said Thursday when reached by phone. "For now, it's not going to happen. It's not to be," she said.

She said she thought the proposition would have been best for the community and public safety.

However, Witt's letter said actions by city officials indicated "an intent of the LFUCG to retain the current management structure." The jail is managed now by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray, said the city appreciated Witt's "willingness to step up and help the community at the jail ... ." But "we agree with the sheriff's assessment that the city should retain control of the jail."

In her letter, Witt also said the sheriff's office did not have time to find an insurance company willing to take the risk of covering the jail.

The jail is sued regularly by inmates, workers and former workers, and Witt had said the city might save hundreds of thousands of dollars if the sheriff's office managed the detention center because her office has private insurance that could pay lawsuit settlements and payouts.

The city, which is self-insured, has paid more than $3 million in settlements and payouts in the past five years, Witt and Urban County Council members have said.

Witt said in her letter that the sheriff's office's current insurer, which was not named, refused to provide coverage for the jail after reviewing its "loss runs" — insurance claims it has filed during a particular time frame, the letter said.

Her office could find only one insurer willing to accept liability for the troubled facility. But that company also wanted the rest of the sheriff's office's insurance contracts, the letter said. Witt said she was not willing to do that.

"The Office of Sheriff cannot commit to transferring its insurance contracts due to the possibility of being counterproductive to the goal of increased efficiencies," the letter said.

Witt's letter also cited signs the city does not want to make changes.

She noted that the Urban County Government completed negotiations with the union that represents the majority of the jail's employees last month, more than 11/2 years after the last contract expired. Union leaders have said they don't want the sheriff's office to run the jail because their contract with the city probably would be nullified since the sheriff's office is not part of the Urban County Government.

"We are very pleased with the notification," Kevin Johnson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Town Branch Lodge 83, said of Witt's letter. Johnson noted that corrections officers and sheriff's deputies often work hand-in-hand, and he said he looked forward to continuing "a positive working relationship" with the sheriff's office.

Johnson said corrections officers also were looking forward eagerly to the city naming a new jail director. The city has continued to screen applicants for the position, now being filled on an interim basis by former jail director Ray Sabbatine.

"The Office of Sheriff does not intend to insist upon a dialogue about the management of Community Corrections if the direction of management has already been decided," Witt's letter said.

Not having the sheriff's office run the jail is a "missed opportunity" for the city, said Councilman George Myers.

Myers has said the cost savings the sheriff could offer were too significant to ignore. In addition to the possibility of private insurance, the sheriff's office could save money and manpower by providing a career path for corrections officers who aspire to be on-the-street officers, he said.

Witt has said the city also would have saved more than $100,000 a year on a director's salary. And the sheriff's office could earn state reimbursements for the salaries of some officers, which the local government cannot.

"Once the jail's stabilized, maybe we can come back at a later date and see if there are more partnerships we can do with the office of the sheriff to save taxpayers money," Myers said.

In an email to public safety task force members, Frost, the chairman, indicated the task force should focus on other issues now.

"In light of her conclusions, I suggest that we discontinue our review of the governance issue and move on to other issues regarding the operations of the detention center," he said in the email.

Witt's letter said it was never her office's intent "to wrest away management of the detention center."

The sheriff first expressed interest in running the jail in 2007. She said her only goal was to save taxpayers money and provide better service to the public, workers and inmates.

"We will always, always be willing to do that," she said Thursday. "We remain open-minded about the issue. And if the members of LFUCG ask us for assistance in that manner, we stand ready as we always have."

Straub said the mayor's administration would continue to look for a new jail director and "remain focused on safe and efficient operations."

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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