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Taxpayers to begin covering part of probation officer salaries

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Taxpayers will have to cover more of the costs to keep tabs on the 1,200 people who are out of jail but under the court’s watch.

County probation officers make sure that people released from jail or sentenced to probation, rather than time behind bars, are not doing drugs or drinking, are paying their fees and completing court-ordered programs, such as drug programs or counseling.

The program costs $1.3 million annually, with most of the money being spent to pay the 25-person staff.

Part of the costs of the program have been covered for years with fees, which offenders pay to offset some of the cost of probation officers’ salaries. Adults or children on probation pay a start-up fee of $200 or $100, and monthly costs range from $20 to $30. But the fees only bring in about a third of the department’s annual costs. In 2013, the county raised about $465,000 in probation fees.

Getting more fee money isn’t possible. Probation fees are set by the state legislature, not local officials, and Johnson County already is charging the maximum allowed, probation director Suzanne Miller said.

Now the county council will need to start moving those salaries into the general fund, which is paid for with tax dollars. Starting next year, that will mean council members will need to cut at least $145,000 in spending from other county offices, which could mean smaller or no raises for employees, putting off purchasing new equipment or not filling vacancies.

The expenses from the probation department will slowly be shifted back into tax funds over the next four years, until all probation department staff are paid out of the general fund. Any probation fees collected will then be turned over to the county.

Although the change would simplify how the county pays probation staff, the move is bad timing since the county also has to find ways to pay for the new Superior Court 4 and has been asked to add new corrections officers at the jail, county council member Anita Knowles said. Right now, county office managers have requested to spend about $3 million more than is expected in tax revenue, Knowles said.

“I don’t know if this is a good year to increase the general fund. It’s very doubtful that we’ll be able to afford raises this year because of things like this,” Knowles said. “It might have to be saying no to new equipment. We haven’t discussed a hiring freeze, that’s something I would be considering.”

Probation fees were never meant to cover all of the costs of the program, but instead to pay for salary increases or office expenses, Miller said. In recent years when tax revenue dropped due to property tax caps and the recession, the county has relied more on the fee money to help free up tax dollars for other county expenses, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.

More than 1,000 adults and 200 juveniles are on probation right now, and each pays fees for the service. For example, adults serving probation for felony cases pay a one-time charge of $200, then $30 per month. Miller expects the number of people on probation could go up in the future, due to changes in the criminal code that changed penalties for some crimes.

The amount of fees collected has decreased in recent years for multiple reasons, Loyd said. Increased testing catches more people doing drugs or drinking alcohol, who are then returned to jail and no longer pay fees, Loyd said. The economy also affected people’s ability to get jobs and pay fees, meaning they completed probation without being able to pay all the costs.

Staff have met with probationers and asked about their income and how they’re spending it, Loyd said. A collection agency offered to try to collect about $270,000 in unpaid fees but was only able to get about $5,700, Loyd said.

The probation department has also not filled one probation officer and one secretary position to save money, Loyd said.

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