Blount County Correctional Facility inmates by the end of fiscal 2021 will make the Blount County Sheriff’s Office an estimated $500,000 by making phone calls and using electronics.

BCSO put in a budget request on Dec. 30 to the County Commission’s Budget Committee to allocate $200,000 from “communications revenue” between Fund 101, the sheriff’s office’s general fund, and Fund 122, the drug control fund.

The $100,000 allocated to Fund 101 will cover inmate medical expenses. The $100,000 appropriation to Fund 122 will be used “to purchase needed K-9s, replace metal on horse barn, and to cover other expenses associated with the Sheriff’s Drug Fund,” BCSO Deputy Chief Chris Cantrell wrote in a memo to the Budget Committee.

BCSO Finance Manager Angelie Shankle specified in an email that “other expenses” include “vet bills, meds, food, housing, training of animals and deputies, gear for animals and deputies, training equipment and training center training needs.”

The sheriff’s office originally budgeted $300,000 to come from inmate communications, Shankle said, adding that this year’s estimate of $500,000 is an increase from last year.

Phone commissions brought in $271,732 in fiscal 2018 and $149,284 in fiscal 2019, the county’s annual financial reports showed.

Blount County’s contract with City Tele Coin, the jail’s inmate phone provider, states that the county takes 68% of inmate phone calls and 30% of inmate video calls. City Tele Coin also offers the county a purchase discount of 68% on prepaid inmate calling cards that Blount then can sell at full face value.

One 15-minute phone call costs an inmate $5.65; one 15-minute video call costs $7.50. Blount takes $3.84 and $2.25, respectively, from each of those calls.

BCSO’s relationship with City Tele Coin, which has proved to be lucrative for both parties, has been subject to scrutiny in recent years after The Daily Times learned City Tele Coin owner Jerry Juneau donated $3,000 to Sheriff James Berrong’s political campaigns and that the company hired Berrong’s daughter, Caroline. That coverage can be found at https://bit.ly/2N9llcE.

The notable influx of inmate communication revenue comes months after the sheriff’s office decided to eliminate in-person visitation and switch to video visitation in February 2020.

Video visitation is accessed through a monitor in the jail lobby. Inmates, sitting just yards away, initiate the video chat on a monitor inside the jail pod or on portable tablets.

BCSO’s website states inmates are given a free one-hour visitation each week, but all other interactions are chargeable.

More HVAC talk

Blount County Schools requested to appropriate $295,000 for 29 HVAC units at several county schools.

Many Budget Committee members asked BCS officials why the HVAC units were not included in BCS initial capital requests.

During this month’s Education Committee meeting, County Commissioner Mike Akard questioned why they weren’t included in an earlier request to spend money from Fund 177, which is designated for capital improvements.

BCS Fiscal Administrator Troy Logan explained the district does not have the funds to replace all the units that need it.

“Ideally we would have this all in one multiyear plan, and that’s what we’re working on, but we’re not to that point yet,” Logan said.

He noted that a recent preliminary audit by Trane estimated $15.4 million in “immediate capital needs” across the district, including many HVAC units that are more than 20 years old.

Because of the way the county passed this year’s school budget, it must take every request to spend money from Fund 177 to the Budget Committee and full commission. “I’m sure not what else I can do to facilitate getting this work done,” Logan said.

Akard said he would like to see the district perform predictive maintenance on the more than 2,000 HVAC units. He said he also is wary of Trane both recommending purchases and being the vendor, although this list of HVAC units did not come from the audit.

Other budget items

Budget Committee members also forwarded a $6 million request to cover the county’s portion of an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Alcoa to pay for the infrastructure work on a 630,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse near the intersection of Alcoa Highway and Pellissippi Parkway. Alcoa is also supposed to contribute $6 million.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s State Industrial Access Agreement stated the warehouse would cost an estimated $187.5 million to build and would generate an annual payroll of $23.4 million — with average hourly wages of $15 for unskilled workers.

According to emails obtained by The Daily Times, state and local officials estimate construction on the Amazon warehouse could start as soon as June 2021, with access to the facility by spring 2022.

A request for funds to hire a part-time magistrate in Blount County Juvenile Court while the current magistrate undergoes cancer treatment was forwarded to the full commission.

Juvenile Court Judge Kenlyn Foster wrote in a memo that the part-time magistrate is necessary as COVID-19 has forced an increase in child abuse and domestic violence cases and has suspended in-person court proceedings twice.

The Blount County Highway Department asked that the county prioritize the purchase of two snow plows, which could better clear snow from narrower roads. If the commission approves, the snow plows would be funded out of the fiscal 2021 budget.

Commissioners will vote on these and other matters at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, via Zoom, Meeting ID: 965 3037 9812. Public comment is permitted in-person in room 430 of the Blount County Courthouse, 345 Court St. in Maryville.

Follow @_shelbyharris on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

Reporter

Shelby joined The Daily Times in 2019 as a reporter covering county government.

Education Reporter

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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