By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
Sheriff David Allison, in a wide-ranging and candid interview, said Pearl River County has a “major drug problem,” and law enforcement officials can’t “arrest our way out of it.”
“It is a spiritual problem and will be overcome through education and moral and spiritual teaching in our schools and churches,” he said. He also said that the problem is mostly with prescription drugs prescribed by doctors, but there is nothing law enforcement officials can do about it if a person has a legitimate and legal drug prescription.
He said he and a group of concerned citizens plan to begin a drug outreach in the county’s three school systems in an attempt to reach children at an impressionable age and tell them the dangers of drugs.
It is the first time Allison has spoken out publicly on the what some people are calling a “drug epidemic” in Pearl River County.
On other issues, Allison said a “tight budget situation” caused the county to request additional help from the City of Poplarville to help defray costs of housing city prisoners in Millard prison and dispatching services.
He also said that he will run for a third term in 2015. He is in his second term and was first elected in 2007, and took office in January 2008.
He said that Pearl River County has “a major drug abuse problem.”
Allison also said that he would not personally favor combining the county’s two city police forces with the county sheriff’s department to form a metropolitan-type sheriff’s department, as is done in some jurisdictions, but would do it, if that’s what political leaders and citizens want, and if it would save taxpayers’ money.
“I personally don’t favor it — our two city police forces do a good job, and we cooperate well with them — but we could do it, if that’s what the people want,” he said.
Some have suggested combining the county’s three law enforcement agencies to save taxpayers money, but Allison said he did not know if it would produce a savings because no one so far has studied the issue.
“Of course, you have to realize that we could not do it with the number of deputies we have, that the revenue streams would have to be readjusted and more deputies added,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think it will ever be done here.”
Allison also said that figures he has run on the county jail, or prison some call it, at Millard shows that the county is saving money on the jail overall by reducing the costs of what the county would otherwise pay to house its 160 county prisoners.
The county has come under criticism by some citizens who say the county should have never gotten into the prison business, that it is costing the county extra money to run what is a huge jail, or prison, at Millard.
But it might be too late to turn back now, eight years after the new facility was occupied and the county assumed a $750,000 annual note on it.
“I have looked at other counties who keep only their own prisoners, about our size, and we are spending less on our prisoners because of the state and federal revenue we get from keeping those type prisoners,” said Allison.
“We are saving money,” Allison said, “on the jail. We’re not making money, but it is saving us money when you count in the revenue it generates.”
The Millard facility has a capacity to hold 460 prisoners and currently houses 340 — 130 state, 50 federal and 160 county prisoners. The county receives $20 a day per prisoner from the state and $40 per day per prisoner for federal inmates. The state and the feds also pick up medical expenses for their prisoners, but the county has to absorb the feeding costs, which are not much per day per prisoner.
The county also expects to pick up an additional $7,000 to $8,000 a year from Poplarville prisoners. A contract between the county and the City of Poplarville was hammered out last week, and the city is expected to begin paying the county between $20 and $30 per prisoner per day for incarcerating city prisoners in the county jail when the contract takes effect.
Supervisors cut the sheriff’s department prison budget in the new county budget that took effect Oct. 1. The cut was not much, $25,000, leaving Allison with a $2.8 million prison budget, the same as last year.
It takes about 35 officers to run the prison, and Allison said he actually could use about five more prison officers, but the budget won’t allow it.
On the administrative side, which is the law enforcement side including the 40 deputized officers who patrol the county, supervisors cut Allison’s budget by $100,000. He originally requested $3 million but the cut left him with a $2.9 million 2013 budget. About 10 people work strictly in administration.
He has five deputies who patrol the county 24 hours a day each day of the year, with 2 covering the north and 3 covering the south end of the county.
“First, most people just don’t realize how big the county is. But when you have to cover it like we do, you catch on real fast. It’s 40 miles north to south and 40 miles east to west. Pearl River County is the third largest county in Mississippi square-mile-wise,” said Allison. “In other words, if you get in a patrol car, at 60 mph it will take you 40 minutes to go from one end to the other.”
Allison said he can cover the county with what he has, but he would like to have more deputies, although his budget won’t allow it.
“With what we have, we are not able to be as proactive as we would like. We actually spend most of our time answering calls rather than doing preventive patrolling,” he said.
On the drug issue, Allison acknowledged that Pearl River County has a “major drug problem.”
“Yes, we do, and we can’t arrest our way out of it, either. It will take teaching our young people in church and at school the dangers of drugs and how that they should in no way experiment with drugs. It’s a moral issue, and it will take education and moral and spiritual instruction to get us out of this terrible problem,” he said.
“It would be worse if we weren’t so active in that area, though,” he added.
“We do have drug overdoses in the county, and it’s tragic to watch families suffer from this problem. They go through so much pain and suffering as they watch their loved ones struggle with this problem. And most of it is abuse of prescription drugs. You can’t do anything to an individual when they have a valid prescription in their pocket, although you know they are abusing it,” said Allison.