The Augusta Commission agreed Tuesday to renew a contract with the probation firm Sentinel Offender Services but held off on authorizing a $2.5 million loan to continue the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem revitalization until a city official returns with more answers about the project.
Commissioners peppered Chief State Court Judge Richard Slaby with questions about Sentinel but refrained from arguing or insulting one another. Several of them made a revived call for decorum last week.
Sentinel has monitored probationers in Richmond County State Court for 15 years but pulled out of Superior Court in Richmond and Columbia counties last year after lawsuits alleged the private firm was jailing clients, sometimes for extended periods, for nonpayment of fees that extended beyond charges imposed by the court.
Slaby said under the new contract, the four State Court judges are prepared to end the relationship with Sentinel if it becomes apparent the company is in the wrong.
“We don’t base our decision on allegations,” he said. “The probation company can do nothing more than the court orders them in that sentence.”
Among several issues raised by Commissioner Donnie Smith was that of a case pending in California district court. According to court filings, Sentinel insurer Allied World Insurance Co. is seeking to deny coverage for claims filed against Sentinel in Richmond and Columbia counties and the reimbursement of defense costs the provider has already paid.
“This case has me concerned,” Smith said, though Slaby maintained the company has a policy in effect.
Smith also wanted information about monitoring fees imposed by Sentinel, which runs its own electronic monitoring service. Slaby said the fees range from $6 to $9 a day, plus a connection charge of $80 and the requirement that probationers have landline service. The fees, not tax dollars, help employ about 30 people to supervise about 5,800 probationers in Richmond County, he said.
Slaby said he had consulted an attorney about allegations that someone in State Court has a personal relationship with Sentinel. He said he’s received nothing from the company besides “serving this county” and leaving the courts in a better condition than before.
“For anybody to suggest that I have a pecuniary interest in this company … I’m trying to control my temper, but I’m not going to let it stand,” Slaby said.
Smith said he was “told by somebody at the county jail that Sentinel had 50 to 100 in the county jail” for nonpayment of Sentinel’s fees, which could total $900,000 annually.
“So then the burden is back on the taxpayer … They’re using the jail to collect their fines,” Smith said.
“I find it hard to believe that any probation officer or probation company could issue a warrant without the judge signing off on it,” Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said.
Sentinel has relied on bench warrants to have probationers arrested since Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig issued a restraining order prohibiting enforcement of warrants sworn out by Sentinel staff.
A motion to approve the contract passed 7-3 with Smith, Mary Davis and Wayne Guilfoyle voting no. Davis and Guilfoyle said afterward that they wanted the matter returned to a committee for further discussion.
Commissioner Alvin Mason said he had questions about the funding mechanism the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem revitalization. The project, whose funding source is a 50-year, $750,000 annual allocation of hotel bed taxes, was part of a bargain to move forward with construction of the Augusta Convention Center.
Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler was out of the country Tuesday, according to City Administrator Fred Russell. The group declined to question assistant director Hawthorne Welcher, who appeared in his place.
Russell, who has had a key role in most of the project’s directives, said it has received national recognition, acquired much property and prompted another development by United House of Prayer, which operates a housing development organization next to the Laney-Walker houses.
“To establish that vision, I think we’ve hired some consulting people,” Russell said, and future funds could possibly be better spent “in bricks and mortar.” So far, $8 million has been spent and 18 houses built.
Mason’s questions included the amount of bonds the city expects to issue for the project, the amount of bond fees and interest, the amount of Housing and Urban Development funds expended on the project; and what the project’s Web site means when it claims a “10 to one match” of private and public dollars, with names and amounts.
The city issued $8 million in bonds based on five years of hotel bed fee collections, which are guaranteed for 50 years, but spent the $8 million in three years.
Commissioner Bill Lockett called the questions “an outstanding list and definitely something we need to get answers to, but he hoped delaying the loan won’t jeopardize the project’s progress.
A motion to return to the “bridge loan” request after the questions are answered passed 6-4 with Lockett, Guilfoyle, Bill Fennoy and Marion Williams voting no.