|County officials eyeing forfeiture funds|
|Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor|
Feb. 20, 2004 -- Hopkins County commissioners devoted time this week to looking for money that could be used to help fund a needed expansion at the county jail, as well as additional personnel and equipment for the sheriff's officers.
As commissioners considered an annual grant application funding grants for the Tactical Narcotics Task Force, thoughts turned to the recent large quantities of money seized during drug interdiction arrests.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Don Patterson said he would like to see some of that money go toward the operations of the Hopkins County jail and sheriff's office.
"We've got a 98-bed jail down there and we're running 109 to 111 (inmates), and the sheriff is having to limp along with that," Patterson said. "We know in time coming that Jail Standards Commission is coming back."
The commissioner said some of the funds might also be used instead of tax dollars to also provide additional manpower and equipment for the sheriff's office.
"If there was some way to get some money, if not directly for the jail, but maybe for vehicles or anything, and we could take that money and, in turn, do more for the sheriff or his people," Patterson said.
The money the commissioners referred to is held in a discretionary fund by the district attorney's office after seized funds have been ordered forfeited by the courts.
"When the seizure is completed, we have an agreement with the local [law enforcement] agencies that they get 70 percent and we get 30 percent," District Attorney Frank Long said. "Those funds are then placed into a fund in the [county] treasury to be used by the district attorney solely for the purposes of his office."
Commissioners have their eye on the more than $260,000 currently in the district attorney's fund. The money is used to pay the salary of one of the support workers in the office, as well as to supplement salaries paid to assistant prosecutors and to maintain a reserve in the bank.
Long said Thursday the fund has enabled him to retain top quality assistant protectors by paying them a salary comparable to what they might be able to receive in a large city.
Commissioner Danny Evans agreed with Long's use of the money, but is concerned about any surplus amounts.
"I think it's good that [Long] uses some of that money to enhance the salaries of some of his employees," Evans said. "You can't keep those kinds of assistant DAs and people that are good at their jobs unless you pay them properly, and if he was not doing it, we would have to. The remainder of that money, however, should be used."
The district attorney's office contributes to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education [D.A.R.E.] programs in the county and also purchased state-of-the art visual and audio equipment for the newly-restored district courtroom in the courthouse.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Beth Wisenbaker said the county recognized the fact the money is a discretionary fund, but says the county should get some of the money.
"We are very appreciative of what we are getting now," she said. "But the fact of the matter is, when they pick up the drug traffickers, they enter our system, we have to house them in the jail, have to consider personnel, overcrowding and, nine times out of ten, we have to supply them with a lawyer, and all of that is coming out of property tax."
Texas statutes limit the way forfeited funds can be spent. The district attorney said that even if state law allowed the money to be used the way commissioners are discussing, it would just be like taking money from one pocket and putting it in another.
"Any money [commissioners court] might get from that, they're going to have to make up to pay for the people that work in this office," Long said. "That's the thing they don't seem to grasp -- they are not having to pay those bills. We pay from that fund."
The district attorney also said there is never a guarantee that officers will be able to seize additional money in the future, funds that only make it into the discretionary fund after lengthy court proceedings.
"It is not something where we can say we're going to have this amount of money coming in," the district attorney said. "You never know. It's not like a tax base. It's one of those things that, if an officer happens to make a seizure, there should be some forfeiture funds to come in. But there is no guarantee the officers are going to be able to catch the guy that has the money this year."
Even with seizures of money, there is no assurance the funds will be forfeited by the courts.
As an example, a seizure of more than $204,000 by the police department was to have been distributed last week, but a last-minute court filing has halted that distribution and it will now be up to a district judge to rule whether the money will be forfeited or not.
Even after that, there remains a potential for appeal of the district court ruling.