by Scott Wartman, firstname.lastname@example.org –
Every time residents in Grant County see their area in the news, they brace themselves for the worst.
“Grant Countians don’t like the stigma from this,” said Dave Cahoon, pastor at Mt. Olivet Christian Church in Williamstown, the county seat. “When Grant County makes the news, we’re like, ‘Oh boy, this is not going to be a good story.’ ”
A clash among county leaders over management of the Grant County Jail has, as some residents described it, torn the county apart.
The county doesn’t usually get a lot of attention. It’s most famous for the life-size replica of Noah’s Ark being built and set to open as a theme park in July. The ark will provoke pride or a roll of the eyes, depending on whom you ask.
The fight over control of the jail, however, has provoked widespread embarrassment.
On one side is Judge-executive Stephen Wood and members of Grant County Fiscal Court, who have refused to approve promotions and a management plan proposed by Jailer Chris Hankins. County leaders have accused the jailer of mismanagement and running over budget.
On the other side, the jailer and jail employees have accused Wood and the county magistrates of playing politics. They’ve sued the county to compel it to approve the promotions and have shown up en masse at fiscal court meetings.
Inmate lawsuits, personnel lawsuits, prisoner escapes and maintenance issues have plagued the jail for a decade, said Magistrate Jacqalynn Riley.
“It continues to be the black eye of the county,” said Riley, who worked for the jail five years.
‘Acting like fools’
It’s a county where everyone knows everyone and has friends and family on both sides of the issue.
Though about 40 miles south of Cincinnati, Williamstown seems much farther. An occasional farmer in flannel or businessman in a suit passes by the one- and two-story early 20th century buildings that line Williamstown’s main drag.
With three barbershops across the street from the county courthouse, there’s no shortage of debate.
About 80 percent of John Coleman’s customers at Classic Barbershop think the jail should shut down.
“To be honest with you, they say both of them are acting like fools, embarrassing the whole town,” Coleman said. “That’s what you get most of the time. That’s what I hear. I hear it quite a bit.”
Here’s what Grant Countians are talking about:
- Crude sexist comments caught on video last year by Judge-executive Wood during a discussion of the jail budget that resulted in a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination based on sexism and age.
- Wood and Jailer Hankins have been at odds over how to manage the jail, specifically over promotions and an organizational chart the fiscal court has refused to approve. Six jail employees filed suit March 17 against the county to compel them to approve the promotion.
- Dozens of jail employees confronted the fiscal court at a February meeting after officials delayed a vote by two days on paying the bills, including their salaries. Fiscal court members wanted to know why the jail came in $150,000 over budget in the previous month.
- Deputy Judge-executive Scott Kimmich’s hospitalization for an undisclosed ailment led to accusations of special treatment from jail employees for not having to draw on his sick leave. Kimmich didn’t return calls for comment. Treasurer Peggy Updike said he was working in the hospital and at home.
- Jail management came under fire for not filing for reimbursement from the state for inmate medical expenses. Jail spokesman Jason Hankins, the brother of the jailer, said that stems from the previous administration. He doesn’t know how much money the county missed out on.
- Declining state inmate populations in the jail have led to $500,000 less in revenue to operate. The state pays a per diem to counties to house state inmates.
- Two other lawsuits are pending against the county from the previous jailer’s administration. A series of escapes under previous jailers has also brought the jail under scrutiny.
No end in sight
Some residents just want the feud to end.
“The jail has always been the … elephant in the room, always the thing that no one has wanted to talk about,” said Jim Wells, mayor of Dry Ridge. “It’s a necessary evil. You have to have a jail.”
Fiscal court magistrates are considering closing the jail as one option.
Kentucky law allows counties to consolidate jails or house their inmates in other counties that agree to the arrangement. Since 1970, 41 Kentucky counties have chosen to close their jails, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Many residents in this county are sick of the jail troubles and want to send prisoners to other county jails.
While getting his hair cut at Classic Barbership across from the courthouse, Dwayne Nickell, 57, of Williamstown suggested with a laugh that a motel should go on the jail site.
“Every time you turn around, they’re getting sued or something,” Nickell said. “If they can’t do something about it, they should bulldoze it over.”
Others are concerned closing the jail and transporting prisoners would cost more and take up police officers’ time. The county is saddled with $500,000 mortgage payments on the jail, said spokesman Jason Hankins. That has to be paid for 14 years. Paying another county to house prisoners and transporting them from jail to court would outweigh any savings, he said.
“You can shut the jail down, but you’re going to pay a whole lot more to do it,” Hankins said.
Riley said the county can’t keep taking from the general fund like it has in the past year to subsidize the jail.
Go to McDonald’s for the story
This may seem like just a political power struggle between the judge-executive and the jailer. But in a county with 25,000 people interspersed among farms and forests, it’s personal for many.
If you want to get caught up to speed on the politics of Grant County, go to McDonald’s just off Interstate 75 in Dry Ridge.
It’s one of the few communal gathering spots in a county that only a four months ago voted to allow alcohol sales countywide.
You bring up the jail, most people there know what you’re talking about. But they politely decline to talk to outsiders about it. They all know, or are related to, people on both sides of the argument.
“No comment,” said one man dressed in a suit who declined to give his name but was described by many in the restaurant as an undertaker in the community. “I have friends on both sides.”
Many wanted to talk but thought better of it.
“It is tearing this community apart,” said an elderly woman as she and her husband got up from a booth. She also knew people on both sides and didn’t want to comment further.
Larry Simpson sat at one of McDonald’s booths and had no fear in giving his opinion. He’s a cattle farmer from Williamstown. Wearing a worn flannel and stained ball cap advertising a local auto parts store, Simpson, 67, greeted his neighbors and friends as they walked by one day last week.
He’s known the judge-executive all his life. Wood’s wife is Simpson’s fifth cousin. He believes the issue stems from Wood’s ego. He said the judge-executive should let Hankins run the jail.
“They’re like two old mules I had one time,” Simpson said. “One went right, one went left and I wanted them to go straight ahead. It’s an awful mess and it shouldn’t be.”
Wood encouraged people to come to fiscal court meetings to get the full story. The public doesn’t understand many facets of this feud, such as the jailer wanting to give his brother a $10,000 raise, Wood said. That’s one of the many moves the jailer wants to make that Wood disagrees with.
“There’s a whole lot more to this than you know,” Wood said. “The rift is bad between the jail and us.”
The next fiscal court meeting is April 4.
Riley, as a member of the fiscal court, said she hasn’t seen childish behavior. She’s genuinely concerned about the financial drain the jail is having on the county and how it’s being managed.
“I’d like to think we went above and beyond on the fiscal court to develop strong working relationships,” Riley said. “It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere.”
In the meantime, residents try to focus on the positive. Grant County is a place where people come together for prayer, to solve issues like drug abuse and help each other survive, Cahoon said.
“There’s a lot of benevolence where people in the community need help,” Cahoon said. “It’s a lot of churches, Christian people and people in general taking care of one another. If someone has a roof that has problems, leaks, people will take care of that kind of stuff.”