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Mercer County Fiscal Court Looks To Make A Jail Break

Fiscal Court Considers Ending Interlocal Agreement

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Robert Moore
Herald Staff

The Mercer County Fiscal Court has voted to hold a special-called meeting to discuss terminating the interlocal agreement with Boyle County. The agreement establishes the relationship between Mercer and Boyle and dictates how the Boyle County Detention Center is operated and paid for. No date has been set for the meeting. Magistrate Kevin Hicks initially moved to notify Boyle County to terminate the agreement effective July 1.

“I think we’re getting hosed,” said Hicks, who said Mercer could get a better deal from another community. Hicks also noted that in the joint jail committee, Mercer, which pays 35 percent of expenses, only gets two votes, while Boyle, which pays 65 percent of expenses, gets three.

“It’s just wrong,” Hicks said. “We don’t have any say.”

“I would suggest you get a copy and read that agreement,” said Mercer County Attorney Ted Dean.

This is not the first time either county has tried to getting out of the partnership, which is unique in the Kentucky. In 2020, Boyle County Jailer Brian Wofford told the Danville Advocate-Messenger that the interlocal agreement violated Kentucky law and that he would no longer be involved with the joint jail committee, which has run the jail for over two decades.

On Aug. 14, 2020, the Danville Advocate reported that Boyle officials announced the agreement was still binding. Both fiscal courts would have to vote if one county wanted to leave.

“We can’t get rid of them, they can’t get rid of us except by mutual agreement,” Dean said.

Mercer Judge-Executive Sarah Steele said Wofford had asked after a recent budget meeting for Mercer to consider pulling out of the agreement and sending inmates to BCDC and paying on a daily basis. Steele said she spoke with Boyle County Judge-Executive Trille Bottom, who said Steele said preferred the counties wait a year before making any move. Steele said Mercer has received notices from local judges who are interested in providing services.

Under Hicks’ original motion, Mercer would have to work on getting an agreement set up to house inmates at another county in three months.

“Where are we going to go?” Dean asked. “Where will we go? What is the closest jail? I have no idea if they’re in the position to accept the number of inmates we have.”

“It might be the right thing to do, but jumping in blindly is a bad idea for Mercer County,” Dean said. “We’ve got a lot of questions we need to answer before we can make a decision on this.”

Under the interlocal agreement, Mercer can’t send inmates somewhere else, Dean said.

Hicks said Boyle County is providing raises to jail employees, of which Mercer pays 35 percent. That is the ratio negotiated by both counties the last time the revisited the interlocal agreement in 2018. The ratio is determined by the percentage of inmates each county contributes to BCDC. Back then, Mercer officials complained they were paying too much toward the jail because the agreement established a floor of 35 percent for Mercer. In 2018, both counties agreed to set the floor at 27 percent. But as the number of inmates at BCDC have declined—due to the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in sentencing and other reasons—Mercer’s share of expenses has gone up from 29 percent in 2020 to 32 percent in 2022 to 35 percent this year.

Over the past year, the relationship between the two counties has deteriorated. Mercer Jailer Bret “Chambo” Chamberlain has complained about BCDC turning down inmates that he says have been cleared medically.

“That constitutes an emergency,” Chamberlain said.

In addition, there have been problems with Boyle’s financial reporting. Mercer County Treasurer Sandy Sanders did a full audit for the current fiscal year. Steele said Sanders had found discrepancies. Sometimes it’s no more than $9, but Sanders said the issues prevent Mercer from issuing payment.

“We are supposed to be making payments and we can’t do that because I haven’t been provided reporting,” said Mercer County Sandy Sanders.

Mercer officials are also bothered that Boyle announced they were looking at building a new jail. Under the interlocal agreement, Mercer would have to pay a share of that debt.

Finally, Mercer officials say they are paying $66 per day to keep inmates versus the state average of $45 a day.  Still, many present at the meeting warned about making a possibly rash decision.

“I understand the issues and the problems,” said Mercer County Sheriff Ernie Kelty. However, Kelty noted that many times, he only has one deputy out. He noted transporting inmates could take up to two and two half hour depending on which county agreed to take inmates.

“That means we’re going to have a deputy out of the county for two—two and a half hours,” Kelty said. He also asked what would happen if an officer encountered a situation that kicked off the most recent round of complaints: a jail refusing an arrestee because of their medical condition.

“Are we going to get guaranteed that the same situation is not going to happen?” Kelty asked.

“We’re not being held hostage,” Dean said. He noted the partnership had been in place for more than 30 years. “When you jump without knowing where you’re going to put your inmates or how much it’s going to cost, I take a very dim view of that.”

Hicks moved to hold a special-called meeting to entertain the idea of terminating the interlocal agreement with Boyle County. The motion passed unanimously.

For more of this story, check out this week’s issue of the Harrodsburg Herald. Click here to subscribe.

1 Comment

  1. Ruth Ann Bryant on March 30, 2023 at 8:52 am

    Is it possible jointly the city and county and with state assistance build our own jail and use the money we’re giving another county stay in our own county and employ our own county employees. 🤔 2

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