McELHATTAN - Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder capped a personal investigation into county prison finances Wednesday, by recommending a series of actions designed to tighten the purse strings and keep a closer eye on accounts at that institution.
As for the inappropriate purchases, Snyder said the prison should not have spent $5,735 for embroidered shirts and bags for employees - nor should it have spent nearly $4,000 for stadium cushions, even if the occasion was something like Corrections Employee Week.
A $3,220 Comcast bill for 31 Hiawatha Trail, Warden Tom Duran's home address, also raised some eyebrows.
The board also expressed some displeasure with the way its contract with Clinton County Medical Services was being applied by that agency - especially charging the prison for vacation days, sick days and holidays - and voted to open up a wider competition for medical services to inmates when the contract runs out Jan. 1.
Snyder, who also serves as the Clinton County Prison Board chairman, said while none of his specific complaints rose to a level of criminal malfeasance, some actions represented "questionable expenditures" on the part of prison officials and purchases that were "inappropriate."
The end result was a series of motions, and votes, designed to provide more oversight and an extra level of security on several inmate-related accounts, including the Commissary Fund, Social Fund and the Homeland Release Fund.
The $17,000 Homeland Release Fund and $14,000 Social Fund are much smaller in comparison to the $323,000 commissary account.
Other expenditures questioned by Snyder included the $3,220 Comcast bill; $250 for tips, parking, tolls, gas and dry cleaning; a $1,830 expense for team and organization sponsorship; $1,250 to Humdinger catering; and $938 representing a restaurant and grocery bill.
Snyder said those expenses should have come before the board for approval, and probably would have been denied had the request been made.
Duran did not offer any comment beyond accepting the board's actions as instructions for action, and noting there were no actions taken by the prison's personnel that could be considered violations of policy or law.
"The items that were purchased were to recognize employees," Duran said. "It's something we've done over the years. They do an outstanding job and we try to let them know that from time to time, to keep them motivated."
Duran also said the funding in question was not within the public financial flow, as it is "not taxpayer money," but money accrued via the inmates or their family and friends.
"This is a new prison board with a new way of doing things and a new approach for benefiting the county," Duran said. "I have absolutely no problem with that."
In the end, the board voted approval of a new policy - no commissary bill will be paid without the "pre-approval" of the prison board.
The board also approved unanimously a new requirement - Any check cut on behalf of the prison will now require two signatures instead of just one.
Finally, the board will investigate the possibility of taking several accounts, including the prisoners' telephone fund, and placing it into a general fund line item rather than in the commissary account.
The issue of finances and accounts has been raised on a number of occasions over the past couple of years at prison board meetings, particularly by prison board member and Clinton County President Judge J. Michael Williamson, who objected especially to vague financial auditing reports and a formerly common practice of approving prison bills that had already been paid.
Williamson took the opportunity to again note that, according to law, it is the prison board or warden responsible for approving prison bills, and not the county commissioners, although the commissioners are responsible for the purse strings and prison budget.
According to Williamson, it's the vagueness of the law that's partly at fault. If the prison board decided to pay the warden $3 million a year, he said, the county government has no recourse but to pay the salary, or sue the prison board.
In fact, that last policy had been changed, as noted by fellow prison board member and commissioner Joel Long, who said until a change is made, the board should be approving a "monthly financial report" instead of "payment of bills.
Clinton County Sheriff Charles Ankney, also a prison board member, recommended that any extraordinary expenses be brought before the board, which sparked a discussion of how one might define an extraordinary expense.
As for the commissary account and the other two accounts, they represent inmate dollars. The social fund is money coming from the various vending machines at the facility, which aren't generally available to inmates except for those on work release, but is regularly used by visitors and prison employees. The homeland account is money brought in or deposited on behalf of inmates and available to them upon their release.
A commissary or canteen is a store within a correctional facility, from which inmates may purchase products such as hygiene items, snacks, writing instruments, etc. Typically inmates are not allowed to possess cash. Instead, they make purchases through an account with funds from money contributed by friends, family members, etc. or earned as wages.
The prisoner handbook at the jail tells inmates they have their own "bank account" while in jail.
"This money is used to purchase items from the commissary. Family and friends can deposit money into this account for you, and any money you earn while in prison will also be deposited into your account. Outside money can be paid in to your account via a money order, cash or check. If someone sends a check or money order, make sure that they write your inmate ID on it. The maximum amount you are allowed in your account is $290 per month."
"There are some purchases that I don't think should have been made," Snyder said, noting he was troubled by a lack of details in earlier reports and had asked the county's financial offices to examine the accounts. "The prison board should be approving all expenditures, including those from those funds."
Snyder said last year the county's taxpayers supported the Clinton County Correctional Facility to the tune of $1.5 million, and this year, the citizens are on line to pay about $1.9 million before all is said and done.