Epps holds firm on closure decision
by Rory Doyle
May 23, 2013 | 2391 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bolivar County leaders remain hopeful Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps will change their minds about closing four of the MDOC's 17 community work centers across the state, effective July 15.

One of those centers is the Rosedale Community Work Center, which has provided countless hours of free labor to the county over the years.

The establishment typically houses between 75-100 inmates, booked on lighter offenses, who work at county facilities and assist city public work departments by cutting grass, picking up trash, performing janitorial work and helping at local schools.

Epps said in an April press release, "Tough times make you make tough decisions. A budget shortfall and fewer non-violent inmates eligible to be housed at community work centers are the reasons for the decision.

"Closing these four facilities will save taxpayers about $2.3 million."

Local leaders say the move may save on the state level but shifting the cost of needed labor to municipalities would cost millions.

"This would have devastating impacts on local budgets throughout the county," said Bolivar County Administrator Will Hooker. "It would also be a big tax burden to Bolivar County's 15 municipalities."

The Bolivar County Board of Supervisors supported a resolution presented by Hooker Monday pleading with Bryant to reconsider the implications.

Epps wrote in an e-mail to The Bolivar Commercial that he understands the financial concerns at the local level.

"MDOC has the same problem — that is, it is in need of money," wrote Epps. "As your commissioner, I have taken the necessary steps to be a good steward of taxpayer money just like leaders of those small towns/municipalities should do."

Keeping the centers open does not appear to be an option.

"(Their) continued operation would be a budget burden for MDOC, which is faced with a deficit this year and in the upcoming year," wrote Epps. "And MDOC does not have enough offenders that meet the criteria for CWC placement."

Cleveland Mayor Billy Nowell said losing the labor would be more than just a financial burden.

The city uses about a dozen inmates per day, helping with maintenance, cleanup and public works functions.

"Their efforts are extremely helpful in keeping Cleveland clean and a step above some other places because of their work detail," said Nowell. "Obviously we're disappointed we won't have their assistance anymore."

Nowell said the city has written more than 20 appeals to both Bryant and Epps and it's frustrating to hear the decision appears to be set in stone.

"We're not sure of what actions we'll take to replace the labor at this point," said Nowell. "We'll continue to make Cleveland a clean and nice place — we'll do the best we can with what we've got."

A possible method for weakening the blow across the county would be to rely on inmates held at the Bolivar County Regional Correctional Facility.

BCRCF Warden James Moore said he will do whatever he can to assist municipalities, but not as many inmates at his facility qualify for the public labor as those at community work centers.

"We don't have a whole lot of inmates here that qualify but I think we'll be able to provide more," said Moore. "We want to help the areas across the county that need it most."

Moore said he currently sends out about 15 workers and he will work within the law to increase this number.

"We're going to help as much as we can and do whatever we can to assist," he said. "The manual labor hours provided by this program must have saved the county millions of dollars over the years."

The move would also impact local events, which depend on the workers for setup and cleanup.

Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Judson Thigpen said the workers play a big role in Octoberfest, Italian Festival and Crosstie.

"It's unfortunate anytime you lose a labor force like that, especially since we've been able to rely on them for some time," said Thigpen in a previous Bolivar Commercial story. "We're going to have to fill a void for those events.

"Obviously this will be a setback and it's going to effect a lot of people and groups. It's going to start hitting the pocket book."

According to a MDOC press release, offenders in the community work centers contributed $17,772,600 in free labor to local, county, state and non-profit charitable organizations throughout the state during the 2012 fiscal year.

MDOC will also close Yazoo County Community Work Center in Yazoo City, Jefferson County Community Work Center in Fayette and George County Community Work Center in Lucedale.

Epps remains mindful of the financial impact of the closures, but he said he's left with no other options.

"I am (concerned) but a tough decision had to be made," said Epps.