Okeechobee County to dip into reserves to pay jail medical bills

Okeechobee County Commissioners voted Tuesday to use funds from county reserves to cover medical bills at the Okeechobee County Jail and overtime incurred during Hurricane Irma.

The board approved a request Sept. 26 to increase funding to the sheriff’s budget by $723,450.

Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen said year-to-date jail medical costs have been about $900,000 — even with hospital bill reductions that have been negotiated.

Year-to-date inmate medical expenses are $889,662.08.

It is anticipated that by year’s end their total medical expenses will be in the vicinity of $904,000.

Even with the “due to” funds previously added to the budget for jail expenses, the sheriff’s office is facing a budget shortfall by year’s end for this line item of approximately $645,000.

“We have done everything possible to keep expenses down across all departments but, as you are aware we have many hours of overtime due to Hurricane Irma. There are also other emergency expenses related to storm preparation and recovery. Our overtime from Hurricane Irma, FICA expense and retirement alone total $166,172.67,” the sheriff explained.

“We have been diligent in watching our expenses throughout this year but unforeseen circumstances have brought us to this point,” he added.

The sheriff said he initially budged $130,000 for jail medical expenses — based on a three-year average.

“Five inmates are non-recurring that have cost us right at $500,000, including a homicide suspect who was shot during his apprehension and some other inmates who are no longer in our facility,” he said.

He said the department also incurred about $160,000 in overtime expense due to Hurricane Irma.

“We have calculated our expenses through the end of the year as closely as possible and estimate needing additional funding in the amount of $723,450.00 to make our budget whole,” he told commissioners.

The sheriff said they hope to receive some reimbursement for hurricane-related expenses from FEMA.

He said during last year’s budget process, the reserves were taken out of the sheriff’s budget and held by the county.

“I am in the state that we need some of the reserves given back,” he said.

“It’s stunning to me that a county of 40,000 people has that kind of expense,” said Commissioner Byrant Culpepper. “That is a lot of money. I have wondered why Medicaid didn’t cover these individuals. I suggested going to legislature about this cost.”

The sheriff said in most cases prior to be incarceration these inmates qualify for Medicaid, but when they come to the jail they no longer qualify.

“This issue is on our agenda to talk to Representative (Dr. Cary) Pigman,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs.

““We pay for Medicaid anyway.”

Okeechobee County paid the state of Florida $750,000 last year for Medicaid.

“It’s all county money that we are spending,” offered the chairman.

The sheriff said they have had unusually high medical expenses due to five inmates.
He said most of the medical costs are for inmates who are awaiting trial. The man who is accused of killing his wife will probably not go to trial for another two years, he said.

County administrator Robbie Chartier said the county has a fund balance of about 25 percent in reserves. She said adding the money from reserves to the sheriff’s office budget will bring the reserves down to 22 percent.

Chairman Burroughs said the two options are to take the money out of reserves or take it out of landfill trust fund.

He said if they take the money out of the landfill trust, they could pay it back over time.

Mrs. Chartier recommended they use general fund reserves to cover the increased medical expenses, rather than take money from the landfill trust fund.

She said if other unforeseen expenses come up that further strain the reserves, they can transfer funds from the landfill trust fund later in the year if needed.

In other business, commissioners approved using $26,738 from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund to buy a 2016 Ford Explorer for the Okeechobee County Narcotics Task Force. This money comes from confiscated money or property, and can only be used for narcotics investigation expenses — primarily for capital expenses. It cannot be used for personnel.

While the funds can only be used by the sheriff’s office, the expenditures must be approved by the county commissioners.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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