A Baptist minister by training, St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts enjoys the language of Scripture.
He pulls from the First Letter to Timothy in the New Testament to describe a dispute he’s having with City Hall over the transport of federal prisoners between the City Justice Center and the federal courthouse.
“Do not muzzle the ox while he’s treading out the grain,” says the 18th verse of the fifth chapter.
In other words, workers deserve their wages.
Betts wants to make sure his deputies — and his office — get paid for the work they do.
That’s why earlier this month Betts gave U.S. Marshal John D. Jordan 60 days notice that he was canceling the contract for the city’s deputies to provide transportation to federal prisoners in the city’s care. Betts isn’t upset with Jordan, but with the city’s Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards, Mayor Lyda Krewson, the Board of Aldermen, and, well, the city’s judges.
“As you know from our conversations,” he wrote to Jordan, “I have repeatedly informed the appropriate officials in City Hall about the 671 percent increase in the transportation of federal prisoners and my desperate need for additional staff to honor the agreement between our offices. … This increase has rendered my ability to continue this mission impossible without additional deputies.”
The culprit is a contract between the city and the U.S. Marshal service to increase the amount of federal prisoners being held in St. Louis. The city is paid $90 a day for each prisoner, and an additional $23 an hour for transportation costs. None of that money goes to Betts’ office, even though he’s providing the transport. Instead, 70% of it goes into a capital fund to improve city jails — including the decrepit medium security jail known as the Workhouse — and the other 30% goes to the city’s general revenue fund. Edwards has specifically targeted an increase in federal prisoners to pad the city’s budget.
As of Sunday, there were 230 federal prisoners in the City Justice Center. On June 1 there were 240. A year ago the daily counts were nearly half that high. The increase — some of them due to the city asking the U.S. attorney to prosecute local gun crimes — has significantly added to Betts’ workload. In 2017, his deputies transported just under 300 federal prisoners. This year, they are on pace to transport more than 3,000.
But none of the money from the federal contract is flowing to his office.
“After asking me to be a partner, Edwards cut a deal to share the money with the city,” Betts says. “The sheriff’s office gets nothing. I don’t think it’s fair. It’s not like I’m asking the city to cut into anybody else’s budget. This is free money.”
The fiscal year 2020 budget estimates $5.1 million in revenue from the federal contract, budget director Paul Payne says. But if current federal inmate levels are maintained, the city will receive more than $7 million from the federal government just in per diem costs.
Betts has met with Edwards several times, including again Wednesday morning after I started asking questions about his letter to Jordan. Betts also sent letters to the Board of Aldermen and Payne, making requests for extra deputies to handle the monstrous increase in work load. So far, Betts says, the city hasn’t budged. If that doesn’t change, “I’m not going to transport any federal prisoners,” he told me. “Period. It’s going to be a mess.”
Edwards says he doesn’t disagree with Betts.
Yes, the jail contract has significantly increased federal prisoners. Yes, that has led to much more work for the sheriff’s office. But there’s nothing he can do, Edwards says.
“I don’t run his budget,” Edwards says. “I don’t have the authority to provide him more deputies.”
Edwards says he has no objection to Betts’ office being compensated for its additional work transporting federal prisoners.
“The city does not stand in the way of the sheriff,” Edwards says.
That’s not how Betts sees it. Ever since he won an election and took over for former Sheriff Jim Murphy, the judges have been battling with him to try to take over authority for security of the courthouses. His budget has been slashed. He has 160 deputies now, where under Murphy, judges used to insist on at least 175. And when the Missouri Legislature passed a law allowing his deputies to become POST certified — they are the only deputies in the state who lack that certification — city leaders denied his request for funding to train his deputies.
So Betts is trying to force the issue. Edwards says if the contract gets canceled, he’ll try to make do with city marshals and police officers.
That’s hardly a good solution when the police department is also understaffed and violence is up, says Deputy Sheriff Gregg Christian.
“How many kids have we lost in the past couple of weeks?” Christian asks. “And the director of public safety wants to take cops off the street?”