DAKOTA CITY | A projected funding shortage is threatening the future of a Dakota County Jail position credited with reforming the once-troubled facility.
The corrections director job was created in 2007 after 12 jail staff members sued the county alleging Sheriff James Wagner and Chief Deputy Rod Herron subjected them to sexual harassment and discrimination.
The County Board stripped the sheriff of power to control the jail and created the director position under their oversight.
Wagner and Herron no longer work for the agency. The lawsuits were settled out of court.
Former Sioux City police Officer Terry Kern was hired as director and is widely credited with restoring oversight and professionalism to the facility, at 1601 Broadway St. in Dakota City. No lawsuits have been filed during his tenure.
Kern's one-year contract was renewed in April, but not until after the five-member board wrestled with concerns over costs, said County Board member Scott Love, of South Sioux City. He said the county is facing a challenging funding situation and the position was seen as expendable. Kern makes $50,000 a year.
If the funding problem continues, he said, the director position is in jeopardy in the next funding cycle. The 2013-14 budget process begins next month, when county department heads submit funding requests.
The annual jail budget is about $2.3 million.
"Absolutely we would look at that, because it's a big budget," Love said. "It's a big expense."
Love is at odds with County Board member Rick Bousquet, of South Sioux City, who said Kern's accountability is worth the money.
"I'm happy with the way Terry runs the jail," Bousquet said.
Kern implemented personnel policies, including prohibiting co-workers from being in a relationship. Commissioners now also weigh in on employee-management issues, including hiring, which has improved oversight, said County Board member Richard McNear, of Homer, Neb.
"If something ain't right, we go to him," he said. "We don't go to the jailers. We don't go to anyone else. We go to him."
County Board member Tony Gomez, of Jackson, Neb., said the question is funding.
"If we have the money, we keep him," he said.
Dakota County officials have already instituted a hiring and wage freeze, as well as various budget cuts.
The county in 2011 ended a contract with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to house inmates at the jail, reducing a revenue stream. Funds also have dropped as federal agents make fewer arrests for immigration violations, said Dakota County Sheriff Chris Kleinberg, who replaced Wagner. People facing federal charges are housed in the jail as they face charges at the federal courthouse in downtown Sioux City.
Kleinberg said he is opposed to going back to the old system. He said having Kern on the job lets his deputies deal with law enforcement, not jail issues.
"I think it's working out great," Kleinberg said. "Why fix something that's not broken?"
Kern agrees and is working to find other revenue sources as budget season approaches. He said officials signed an agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to house inmates charged with committing crimes on reservations. It sent three inmates to the jail last week. The deal could generate up to $50,000 annually, he said.
"Every dollar you bring in helps to pay the bills," he said.
Gomez said the issue will ultimately come down to the budget climate in coming months. Difficult cuts may have to be made, he said.
"If we don't have the money," he said, "well, we gotta do what we gotta do."