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COVID takes bite out of jail budget

COVID-19’s impact on the Warren County Regional Jail – already evident through mask mandates, social distancing and infections among staff and inmates – has now shown up on the balance sheet.

After months of dealing with pandemic restrictions that increased expenses while causing a loss of revenue, Jailer Stephen Harmon presented his budget to Warren Fiscal Court last week.

The budget, approved unanimously by the magistrates, projects spending $8,799,074 in the 2021-22 fiscal year that starts July 1, up slightly from the current fiscal year’s total of $8,792,955.

But it’s in the receipts category that brings that budget into balance that the pandemic’s impact is reflected in dramatic fashion.

Harmon’s budget includes a line item for fiscal court assistance of $1.2 million, a big jump from the $258,000 he asked the magistrates for in the 2020-21 budget.

“We are less than pleased at the projected amount of fiscal court assistance,” Harmon wrote in his narrative accompanying the budget.

Harmon said the jail “did suffer a financial impact that leaves our projections for next year looking troublesome.”

Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon said he understands the difficulties faced by Harmon.

“COVID has played havoc with the budgets and services provided by county governments all across Kentucky and the nation,” Buchanon said in a text message. “Although Jailer Harmon has done a remarkable job of managing the chaos of the pandemic, the jail was hit particularly hard by higher expenses and reduced income.”

The biggest culprits?

Revenue derived from housing state and federal inmates has fallen drastically, as has revenue from having inmate crews pick up litter along roads.

Harmon said the jail receives a daily rate of $52 for housing federal inmates and $31 for housing state inmates. With the pandemic delaying trials and limiting movement of inmates, revenue from those sources has taken a hit.

“We make quite a bit of money from federal inmates,” Harmon said Wednesday in an interview. “We usually like to have 150 to 160, but in recent months it has been 100 to 120. That has definitely contributed to the lower revenue.”

In his narrative, Harmon pointed to the loss of the program that allows Class D felons to pick up litter along roads as another factor in the jail’s reduced revenue.

“We were not able to run any of the road crews, which not only upset the community but also led to a significant decrease in revenue,” Harmon wrote.

The county receives about $120,000 in litter abatement funds each year from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

That’s normally a reliable income source for the jail, but the Kentucky Department of Corrections has forbidden the use of inmates on work details outside of jails and prisons during the pandemic.

In November, fiscal court awarded contracts to some local lawn care companies to pick up litter, and the county has also used some of that state funding to pay for an anti-litter advertising campaign.

None of that has helped the bottom line at the jail, where Harmon said the pandemic has affected both revenue and expenses.

“Personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other purchases necessary to safely run our operation posed a significant increase to our expenditures,” he wrote.

The pandemic months have been challenging in other ways for Harmon and his staff. In an environment where social distancing is nearly impossible, nearly half of Harmon’s staff contracted COVID-19 and about 300 inmates have been infected during the past year.

“That has made it very difficult,” Harmon said. “Our workload is probably three or four times normal and yet we’re understaffed. It has been challenging.”

The pandemic could also delay plans to address an ongoing problem at the jail: overcrowding.

Harmon said Wednesday that the jail population that day was 663 in a 562-bed facility. And that number is deflated somewhat by pandemic restrictions.

“This time last year we were at 742,” he said. “The need for more beds is an investment we have to look at.”

The jailer hopes the amount he’s asking for from fiscal court in his budget turns out to be unnecessary as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the jail is able to house more state and federal inmates and send out road crews.

“This is just a projection. I’m hopeful that the amount we need is significantly less than $1.2 million,” he said.

Likewise, Buchanon is hoping for less of a hit to the county coffers.

“Financial operations of a county jail the size of ours will always be tough, but Harmon understands what it takes to make it work,” he said. “As we come out of the pandemic and things get back to normal, we expect the jail budget to get back to normal as well.”

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

New site raises hopes for veterans nursing home

Mark Bowman, executive director of the Office of Kentucky Veterans Centers, didn’t bring a check Thursday to pay for the long-anticipated state veterans home in Bowling Green, but he may have brought the next best thing.

Bowman brought to a meeting of the Cumberland Trace chapter of the Military Officers Association of America hope that the veterans center could soon get approved for the federal funding that is the last missing piece of the effort to bring the $30 million veterans home to Bowling Green.

The Kentucky General Assembly has already allocated its $10.5 million portion of that total cost. The VA’s portion, $19.5 million, is what Bowman is waiting on.

Speaking at the meeting at the Bowling Green Country Club, Bowman told a roomful of veterans that the home they have worked toward for most of a decade could get that Veterans Administration funding in a matter of days.

With a new 25-acre site in the Kentucky Transpark identified and with a funding boost helping the VA pay for its projects, Bowman said he is optimistic the local center will happen.

Until the Inter-Modal Transportation Authority that oversees the transpark switched in February from a 20-acre site deemed unsuitable by the VA to the new site next to the Crown Holdings Inc. aluminum can manufacturing plant being built on Mizpah Road, Bowman had his doubts.

“I thought we were dead in the water,” he said. “Then I got a call from the ITA. They made some adjustments that alleviated our concerns.”

That new 25-acre site and the $2.5 million allocated last year by the Kentucky General Assembly for design and preconstruction of the center have put Bowling Green in good shape, Bowman said.

Design work is underway, and it’s happening at a time when the VA is as flush as it has been in a while, thanks to a $600 million congressional infusion in 2017 and another $500 million allocation expected to come soon.

The Bowling Green center is now 36th on a VA priority list that includes $512 million worth of projects, so Bowman is confident of receiving a VA funding letter as soon as April.

“It’s almost guaranteed that anybody on that list will get approved,” Bowman said. “I expect to see that funding letter any day now.”

That’s welcome news for MOAA members like Ray Biggerstaff, who received the organization’s Distinguished Service Award on Thursday largely for his work on the nursing home project.

“Ten years ago, we started this journey to get a veterans nursing home in Bowling Green,” Biggerstaff said. “We’ve worked with Bowman throughout the entire process.”

“He (Biggerstaff) spent hours and hours doing the paperwork needed for this,” said John W. Smith, the current president of the MOAA’s Cumberland Trace chapter.

Biggerstaff was honored Thursday along with the late Robert Spiller and Bill Lytle, both of whom received Leadership Awards and both of whom were instrumental in pushing for a veterans nursing home in Bowling Green.

Robert Spiller Jr., accepting the award on behalf of his father, said: “My father had a couple of missions in life. One was to help the poor and needy. The other was to bring a veterans nursing home to Bowling Green. He would be thrilled that it’s coming to fruition.”

Assuming the federal funding letter arrives soon, Bowman expects to spend the rest of this year finalizing the design work and other requirements.

He said construction could begin in the spring of 2022 and take “a little over a year” to be completed.

Although originally envisioned as a 90-bed facility, the Bowling Green center will most likely be scaled back to 60 beds, Bowman said. He expects it to have 120 to 140 employees and be built in a way that will accommodate expansion.

It will be Kentucky’s fifth VA nursing facility, joining those in Hazard, Wilmore, Hanson and Radcliff.

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdaily news.com.

Education leaders take stock of vetoed school choice bill

After Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed House Bill 563 – a school choice measure that would make it easier for students to attend out-of-district public schools and allow per-pupil funding to follow them – a local superintendent said he remains optimistic about the future of public school choice.

“It wasn’t unexpected,” Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields said of the veto Beshear handed down Wednesday.

Still, Fields said his hopes were buoyed when he heard the governor and state Education Commissioner Jason Glass sympathize with independent school districts like Bowling Green’s, which Fields said are losing students because of unfair nonresident student agreements with larger, neighboring county school districts.

“I’m really encouraged to hear him and Commissioner Glass say that they recognize that public school choice is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Fields said.

For his part, Beshear said he’d be willing to work with stakeholders to find a solution to the problem.

“I want those superintendents and everyone going to school in those districts to know that I am willing, ready and able to work with everybody to find a solution,” he said. “But that solution is not taking away more than $25 million from public education in what will be the most significant attack on it and what will signal the end of public education as we know it.”

Under the measure, school districts would have to create nonresident policies for students and those students would count toward a district’s daily attendance figure, which helps determine school funding in Kentucky.

It would also create a form of scholarship tax credits – referred to by its advocates as education opportunity accounts. The accounts would be backed by private donors who would then be eligible for tax credits. The grants, managed by third-party groups, could be used for educational expenses and for public school tuition, according to the Associated Press.

The money also could go for private school tuition in several of the state’s most populated counties, including Warren County.

Beshear also contends HB 563 is unconstitutional, he said, predicting it would draw legal challenges if allowed to become law. He pointed to a landmark Kentucky Supreme Court decision that requires public schools in Kentucky to be adequately funded.

“This measure is a handout to wealthy donors. They would receive tax benefits even larger than charitable donation deductions and could even profit by transferring securities to the private educational institutions to avoid capital gains taxes,” Beshear said in a news release. “HB 563 would lead to the same kinds of funding disparities that the Kentucky Supreme Court held was unconstitutional in Rose v. Council for Better Education in 1989.”

Following the veto, EdChoice KY President Charles Leis issued the following statement: “Gov. Beshear is wrong to veto House Bill 563. By doing so, he chose to listen to special interests like the (Kentucky Education Association) over the voice of Kentucky parents who are begging for help. For too long, families in Kentucky who aren’t wealthy have been left with no choice when it comes to education. Voters across Kentucky agree that this should be the year that changes. We ask Kentucky legislators to put students first and override the veto; every student across Kentucky deserves nothing short of the opportunity to have an education that fits their needs.”

HB 563 still has a shot at becoming law, though its 48-47 passage in the House makes the prospect of a veto override precarious. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and HB 563 would need 51 votes to bypass Beshear’s veto. That means some who initially voted against the legislation would need to reverse themselves.

Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday about the governor’s veto of HB 563.Clayton has opposed the bill.

However, he tweeted his gratitude to Beshear, Glass and Kentucky Association of School Superintendent Executive Director Jim Flynn for opposing the measure and “acknowledging the harm of HB563.”

Clayton is also a board member of the KASS.

“KASS remains united against self-serving individuals & special interests who aren’t concerned about equity or the students who count on us the most. If not us, who will step up?” Clayton tweeted Wednesday.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

Rockfield stabbing case goes to grand jury

A man charged with assaulting another man who is accused of killing his father saw his case proceed to a grand jury.

Bradley Heard, 37, of Rockfield, is charged with first-degree assault in the Feb. 14 stabbing of Daniel Moore.

Moore, 35, of Greensburg, is accused of fatally shooting Heard’s father, Russell Heard, 74, during a confrontation on the Heards’ property and is charged with first-degree manslaughter.

Moore shot Bradley Heard three times during the incident, Kentucky State Police said.

On Wednesday in Warren District Court, a public defender was appointed to represent Bradley Heard after he told Warren District Judge John Brown that he would be unable to retain Dennie Hardin, who is representing him in an unrelated criminal case.

KSP Detective Courtney Milam testified during a preliminary hearing Wednesday that Moore traveled to the Heards’ property on Galloways Mill Road with his sister and her boyfriend Feb. 14.

“They were allegedly trying to locate a female named Kenzie Simpson who had allegedly stolen a handgun from Daniel Moore,” Milam said.

Witnesses reported that Moore announced himself and yelled for Bradley Heard to come out of the house, according to Milam.

“Bradley came out with a large knife in his right hand charging at Daniel Moore,” Milam said.

Moore suffered a stab wound to his left shoulder, then reportedly fired three shots at Bradley Heard and a round at Russell Heard, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Bradley Heard was taken to The Medical Center for treatment and was released March 16, at which point he was served with a warrant charging him with first-degree assault.

Moore was located by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office in a truck on Russellville Road driven by his sister and en route to a hospital, Milam said.

Milam said pictures at the scene showed the windows of the house were covered, so Bradley Heard could not see out of the house before he allegedly charged at Moore.

“According to witnesses on scene, Daniel Moore did have his firearm out,” Milam said. “It was pointed at the ground in front of his belt buckle.”

Witnesses reported that Moore did not point his gun at anybody when he arrived, Milam said.

Brown found probable cause that a crime was committed, bound the case over to the grand jury and kept Heard’s bond at $100,000 cash. Heard remains in the Warren County Regional Jail.

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdaily news.com.