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Snags shackle inmate labor concept

Suncoast News
Published:   |   Updated: May 15, 2013 at 02:45 PM

County officials and the Sheriff's Office remain at odds over how best to use inmate labor for county projects.

Several weeks ago, county commissioners proposed using prisoners from Pasco jails to mow tall grass and clean up junky yards at foreclosed homes that have been neglected.

However, inmates might be better used to help clean county roads and maintain medians, Sheriff Bob White suggested.

That could free up county staff from road detail for other jobs such as mowing lawns, White said at the Sept. 5 Pasco Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting.

Besides, he argued, inmates dressed in jail uniforms with broad, black stripes might only scare neighbors as the prisoners mowed lawns.

Prisoners already serve on road crews for state highways here, but no such contract exists for county road maintenance.

A conference has been set up tentatively for Sept. 15 between the sheriff, County Administrator John Gallagher and Commissioner Michael Cox to discuss options.

Cox had first suggested inmate labor to clean up trashy yards at abandoned, foreclosed homes, and he still believes the concept could work.

Other uniforms have been used in the past for inmates released for day work, Cox said during a phone interview.

Only nonviolent offenders would be used for the work release program to clean yards, Cox said. Jails already screen prisoners as candidates for trustees who can earn privileges such as outside work. Such candidates among prisoners probably would be drunken driving offenders or inmates who wrote bad checks, Cox said.

"These are not hardened criminals," he said.

Cox added he had inquired within the past few years about using inmate road crews on Pasco roads. However, the county didn't pursue the idea because of stipulations such as buying a brand new truck and other gear.

The downside to any inmate crews on county jobs, the sheriff said after the safety council meeting, is that a deputy would have to supervise the crew. That could entail the use of a patrol car plus transportation for the inmates. He theorized perhaps a county truck could be used to ferry the inmates.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand had raised the issue again as chairwoman of the Public Safety Council.

Because of budget constraints, the county is looking at options for cleaning yards at foreclosed homes, Hildebrand said. The county shells out the money to hire the contractor to mow tall grass and then places a lien on the home. The lien has to be paid before the home can be sold.

The problem is, Hildebrand said in a follow-up phone interview, all too often "we don't get the money back (from liens), and that's where the big rub is."

Gulf Harbors residents last month had spoken to Hildebrand about problems from trashy yards at abandoned homes.

Hildebrand herself resides in the Gulf Harbors area, which also must contend with derelict docks and scroungy swimming pools with brackish water from neglect. Often it falls to the county to fence off an abandoned pool, she said. If the county simply drains the water out of a neglected pool, the county could be on the hook for damages from cracks in the empty pool or other problems.

Gulf Harbors residents confirmed what the sheriff had pointed out - they would be nervous about inmates on yard details in their neighborhoods.

"I think the sheriff might have some legal issues" with prisoners mowing lawns, Hildebrand concluded.

Pasco had budgeted $79,000 in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, to mow lawns at neglected homes, according to Richard Ortiz, Pasco's code compliance manager.

It's hard to say how much of that amount is repaid to the county since the figure constantly fluctuates, Ortiz commented.

Currently the county hires a contractor to mow the lawns, Ortiz explained. If the sheriff goes along with inmate road crews, perhaps county staff now on road detail could be used to mow lawns, Ortiz speculated. Then the county wouldn't have to hire a contractor.