Staff find savior budget item for cash-starved drug courts

Benton County commissioners may have found a way to keep cash-starved adult and juvenile drug court programs from expiring at the end of this year.

A stash of several hundred thousand dollars set aside as elections account reserve for 2012 won't be needed and could be available, said Keith Mercer, the county's finance manager.

Discovery of the cache came unexpectedly after county court administrators, a judge, a prosecutor and a police chief lobbied county commissioners Tuesday morning to keep the drug court programs alive in 2012.

It was a repeat performance from a year ago, when the same pitch earned a one-year reprieve from the board.

Commissioners said then that the drug courts would have to survive on grant money, donations and whatever other dollars could be squeezed out of criminal justice accounts. The county wasn't about to hand over more general fund money.

This time, the need is for about $200,000, said Pat Austin, Superior Court administrator.

"Every year we have to push for this," said Austin, who told commissioners about $130,000 was needed to run the adult drug court program, while the juvenile drug court would need nearly $89,000 next year.

About $31,000 in state Criminal Justice Treatment Funds and $20,000 paid by program participants would trim the adult court costs down to about $79,000, Austin said.

The net amount needed for the two programs next year is $168,000, she noted, with Franklin County's contribution at $21,000.

Commissioners were sympathetic, but reluctant to approve a supplemental allocation to save the programs.

Commissioner Jim Beaver said he wants to see drug court continue. "This is a last chance for some of these folks," he said.

Beaver said balancing the need for money as resources shrink and the need grows is the challenge.

"I'm hopeful our team can come together on this," he said.

Commissioner Shon Small said he, too, likes what drug court accomplishes, but agreed with Beaver in not being enthusiastic about giving the courts what they need at the expense of other county programs.

"As a board, we've always had the attitude with grants that when they go away, so do the programs," said Leo Bowman, commission chairman.

The drug court programs began several years ago as a pilot program, which had a $500,000 federal grant. A 50-50 matching grant from the state came later.

"Now we are out of grant money," Austin said.

The group's plea prompted commissioners to vote 3-0 to set a public hearing Nov. 22 for discussion and a decision about a supplemental authorization of funds.

The drug court lobbying entourage left the meeting without a promise, but encouraged that more money might be coming soon to rescue the drug court programs.

It wasn't 30 minutes after the group was gone that David Sparks, county administrator, announced he had found a way to do a budget line item transfer from the elections reserve to the drug court programs that could solve the crisis.

A line item transfer of funds in the 2011-12 budget does not need a public hearing, Mercer said.

Mercer said the money is available without having to do a supplemental appropriation, but the commissioners still must to decide if they want to approve the transfer of about $200,000 to the drug court programs.