In their ongoing battle for dominance over Jackson County Executive Frank White, score another win for the six-member majority faction of the county legislature.
White suffered his latest defeat Friday when the legislature passed a 2018 budget that voided some of White’s key proposals and dealt a humiliating blow by eliminating the salaries for some of his key aides.
Calling the budget White submitted “structurally unsound,” a written statement attributed to all nine legislators criticized White for proposing $280 million in spending while ongoing revenue is estimated at $243 million.
But legislators split over the details, voting 6-3 for a budget that differed in several important respects from the one White proposed weeks ago.
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Key among the personnel cuts was the elimination of White’s public relations staff — a $400,000 savings — and defunding the chief of staff position now held by Caleb Clifford, who is paid more than $140,000 a year.
White clapped back, calling the cuts “spiteful and irresponsible when some members of the Legislature take joy in eliminating staff members, some who have been here decades and worked hard on behalf of the taxpayers. Those same legislators say their decision to cut jobs is to save taxpayer dollars, but they’re adding jobs to their budget.”
He was referencing duplicate positions that legislators approved in the fall that added to their staffs, focusing on finances, research and public relations.
Legislators have been openly critical of Clifford in recent months and assign him partial blame for the deterioration of their relationship with White, who two years ago had the body’s unanimous support when he was picked to replace Mike Sanders at the top of county government through the end of 2016.
White then went on to win voter support to fill out the remaining two years of Sanders’ term and, if he decides to run again, would stand for re-election in 2018.
To justify cutting Clifford out of the budget, legislators cited “a lack of transparency” in county government. As an example, they released a 2017 email showing Clifford’s willingness to avoid getting legislative approval on spending matters. Contracts of $10,000 or more require legislative action.
In the Aug. 24 message, Clifford suggested breaking a $26,997 payment for jail inmate transportation into three pieces “so we can avoid the delay of taking this to the Legislature.”
Clifford said he stood behind his statements in the email.
He said his goal in expediting the payments for transportation was to respond to criticism that the county was not working quickly enough to fix problems at the jail.
“When presented with a contract opportunity, from an existing county vendor, that would free up numerous staff members to work in our facility,” he wrote, “I recommended that the County declare such a purchase an emergency rather than waiting the likely 90-plus days it would take to solicit bids and award a contract.”
Crystal Williams, Tony Miller and Theresa Galvin voted against the budget crafted by the other six legislators with the help of the county’s former finance director, Troy Thomas, who says White fired him several weeks ago.
Voting in the majority were Scott Burnett, Dennis Waits, Dan Tarwater, Garry Baker, Alfred Jordan and Greg Grounds.
This growing friction at the courthouse is not a partisan matter. White and all the legislators but Republicans Grounds and Galvin are Democrats. Rather, the dysfunction seems based on differences over core issues and what some legislators see as White’s unwillingness to move swiftly on issues important to them.
Those two themes converge most notably on the question of how best to address security issues at the Jackson County Detention Center complex.
White had proposed borrowing $30 million to renovate the existing jail while deciding whether to build a new facility, as two recently completed studies suggest.
In their budget message, legislators criticized White’s plans for yet another jail task force and said White’s bond issue was fiscally irresponsible. They proposed instead spending $7 million for “several critical” jail projects with money on hand.
“By not issuing debt for these projects and paying cash, the taxpayers save $3.6 million in interest expenses that would otherwise be paid over twenty-five years,” the legislature’s budget message said.
It also blasted White’s plan to use funds from the COMBAT anti-drug sales tax to give what all agree are much-needed pay raises to jail guards. If that’s to happen, the statement said, it will need the support of the current recipients of COMBAT funding. They include law enforcement agencies, the courts and the county prosecutor’s office.
The approved budget sets aside that money until those discussions are held.
But White countered that it was the legislature that was being irresponsible for not following his recommendations on the jail.
“I have taken a lot heat from many elected officials about what’s going on at the jail,” he wrote. “I have worked tirelessly with them to make repairs and improvements. With this budget, it is clear of the Legislature’s unwillingness to work with my administration.”