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Navigating the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System: Part 13 – The General Fund

With many misdemeanor cases similar to mine far outnumbering the amount of felony cases present on the dockets dating back to 2011, court costs and fines collected as a result of those misdemeanor cases is ultimately paid to the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office in the judicial building on the Square. This office is responsible for the court’s monetary collections, which are then placed into the Rutherford County General Fund.

“The General Fund is the chief operating fund of Rutherford County Government,” according to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Division of Local Government Audit on the 2015–16 fiscal year’s “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of Rutherford County, Tennessee.” The Tennessee Comptroller’s Audits of Rutherford County finances are published in November and can be found at comptroller.tn.gov.

“Rutherford County, Tennessee, maintains 10 individual governmental funds,” states the audit on page 25. “The General Fund . . . the county’s primary operating fund . . . for all financial resources of the general government; General Debt Service Fund . . . accounts for the resources accumulated and payments made for principal and interest on long-term general obligation debt of governmental funds; and the General Capital Project Fund . . . accounts for and reports financial resources that are restricted, committed, or assigned to expenditure of for capital outlays, including construction of capital facilities, . . . all of which are considered to be major funds,” according to page 25 of the 2015–16 audit; Rutherford County also keeps “the other seven . . . non-major governmental funds.”

“The cost of all governmental activities was $180,483,000,” (Rutherford County government activities include General Government; Finance; Administration of Justice; Public Safety; Public Health and Welfare; Social, Cultural and Recreation Services; Agricultrure and Natural Resources; Highways; Education; Interest on Long-Term Debt). However, 55.9% of these costs ($100,908,000), was either paid by those who directly benefited from the programs ($88,503,000), or . . . with operating grants and contributions ($8,505,000) and capital grants and contributions ($3,900,000). The county paid for the remaining [$79,575,000] ‘public benefit’ portion of governmental activities with taxes, general grants and contributions, and other miscellaneous revenue.” (page 29)

With Rutherford County revenues totaling $90,499,701 in the 2015–16 fiscal year—made up of $62,840,113 from local taxes, $9,938,183 from fees received from county officials, $7,943,370 from the State of Tennessee, $2,215,829 from fines, forfeitures and penalties, $1,880,490 from charges for current services, $1,392,188 from the Federal Government, and the remaining $4,289,528 from other local revenues and other governments and citizens groups (page 50), examples of how we spend that money are for “Education expenses of $52,801,000, Public Safety expenses of $48,198,000, and Public Health and Welfare expenses of $19,650,000 [which] comprise the largest categories of expenses of Rutherford County, which when combined ($120,649,000) comprise 66.8 percent of total expenses [$180 million]. Of the $120,649,000 [or the 66.8% of total expenses], $67,683,000 was recovered by charges for services.” (Page 29)

We’re pulling in only about half of what we’re spending to operate the government.

Rutherford County has assets that cover the difference, as explained in other sections of the Comptroller’s audit. That’s the game. The county has collateral, such as land and bonds, to cover its debts for operation while it uses its operations to eventually—and hopefully—turn a profit and break even over time. That’s just for governmental activities, though.

Of these governmental activities funded from the governmental funds (Education, Public Safety, or Public Health and Welfare), the Administration of Justice, which is made up of the Circuit Court, Circuit Court Judges, General Sessions Court, Drug Court, Chancery Court, Juvenile Court, the District Attorney General, the Office of Public Defender, Probation Services and Victim Assistance Programs, makes up 1 percent of total costs, and a 1 percent “impact of the program on the local citizens’ tax base.”

For example, during the 2015–16 fiscal year, 49 percent of the local citizen tax base was spent for public safety; 1 percent was spent on the administration of justice. The administration of justice program’s revenue in that 2015–16 fiscal year was $7,468,000, while its expenses stood at $8,108,000, losing $640,000. (page 29)

“The largest increase for Administration of Justice was due to adult probation services. Previous to April 2016, the county contracted with a private company to provide services to those individuals serving probation in lieu of incarceration. Beginning April 1, the county took over those responsibilities from the vendor and began a new department to provide those services to the public. This increase to appropriations totaled $368,000,” (page 33); in other words, Rutherford County taking over its own probation program added a cost of $368,000 to the county, over half of Administration of Justices’ 2015–16 loss.

Though that excess cost is only a fraction of a fraction in the grand scheme of Rutherford County finances, the department generating that loss is mostly user-funded-based. To pay for itself, it must have people in the area paying to be on probation.

According to a note contained in Alec Karakatsanis’ federal lawsuit against Rutherford County and RCDPRS’ business model, PCC, “Poverty is widespread in Rutherford County. The United States Census Bureau reports that more than one in eight people in Rutherford County (13 percent of the population) lives below the federal poverty rate, which amounts to surviving on $981 per month or less. According to the Economic Policy Institute, however, one adult with no children needs $2,300 per month for a ‘secure yet modest’ standard of living in Rutherford County. Though many people work full-time and are still struggling to subsist below the federal poverty line, many more people are living in extreme poverty: national statistics show that over 1.5 million families get by on less than $2 a day. Moreover, roughly 3,500 individuals in Rutherford County receive Social Security income for blindness or other disabilities. In Murfreesboro, about one in every five poor adult men are disabled. And yet, impoverished people represent the vast majority of people who owe debts to PCC, Inc. The burden of the court debts increases recidivism, blocks productive reentry, devastates families who have to make hard choices about debt payments or food, inhibits mental health care and makes it harder for people to obtain housing and employment. It is from those among us who are least able to pay that PCC, Inc. profits through jailing and threats of jailing for nonpayment.”

Since this federal lawsuit against Rutherford County and its probation department brought to light alleged infractions of the U.S. Constitution and the 1970 Organized Crime Act (RICO), however, “similar to the nation and the State of Tennessee, Rutherford County’s unemployment rate has improved over the course of the fiscal year. As of June 2016, Rutherford County had a labor force of 161,100 with 154,470 employed resulting in a 4.1 percent unemployment rate. Based on the unemployment data reported by the U.S. Department of Labor for June 2016, Rutherford County’s unemployment rate was below both the state’s average of 5.0 percent and the national average of 5.1 percent. These rates are lower than the June 2015 rates, which were reported as 5.2 percent for the County, 5.5 percent for the state, and 6.3 percent of the country,” according to the Tennessee Comptroller’s audit for the last fiscal year.

The current status (as of June 2017) of the federal lawsuit brought against Rutherford County and PCC, negotiated behind closed doors, is that it is reportedly close to a settlement. The County Commission, which is the highest power and final say-so of all governmental decisions, voted during its public safety meeting at the end of April to allow Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess the ability to settle the almost-2-year-old federal lawsuit.

This power afforded to Mayor Burgess by the Rutherford County Commissioners has a limit of $350,000, as that’s the maximum payout covered by the county’s liability insurance, according to Burgess.

If that cap is reached, the payout to the lawsuit’s seven plaintiff’s (“on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated,” as stated in the lawsuit, or, for all the folks who have gone through the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System) will be $50,000 each, if split evenly, and paid for by Rutherford County’s liability insurance policy.

At the end of my Violation of Probation cases in the summer of 2016, I was placed back on probation, managed by the Rutherford County Department of Probation and Recovery Services, until the third week of July 2017.

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