LAWRENCEVILLE - After a year of keeping money in a contingency fund to finance a deportation program at Gwinnett's jail, commissioners voted last month to slash the money, along with about $20 million in other cuts.
But this week, after federal homeland security officials gave the go-ahead for the program, known as 287(g), officials are vowing to reinstate the funding.
"We'll swap it out wherever we need," said Chairman Charles Bannister, who said officials did not know the approval was imminent. "We kept the money in a fund for 14 months. ... We'll make it available."
Sheriff Butch Conway, who believed the money was still in the county's budget until informed by a reporter late Tuesday, said he has had assurances funding will be set aside for the program, which trains deputies to access federal databases and begin deportation proceedings on any illegal immigrants booked into the county jail.
Eighteen deputies to implement the project "are supposed to be in the budget," he said, adding that stripping the money "would not be popular."
Finance Director Aaron Bovos confirmed Tuesday that the money in a contingency fund had been stripped in June.
With an agreement to pay the county for housing illegal immigrants prior to deportation, Conway said, the program could be profitable for the county, at least recouping the $1.4 million in additional personnel.
Already down five to seven personnel due to recent cuts, Conway said he has other ideas for saving money, such as closing the county courthouse on nights and weekends to keep from paying deputies overtime to secure the facility.
But he said a proposal, to be considered by commissioners Tuesday, to close the county prison and cut police officers would be "terrible."
While Conway maintains a jail to house people who are awaiting trial, he said the closure of the prison, which houses state and county sentenced criminals, would create crowding at the jail. Plus, he noted, elimination of a work release program at the prison would mean some families no longer would receive child support help.
The sheriff, who is independently elected and supported Bannister's opponent during last year's primary election, called a proposed 25 percent tax increase voted down last month "insane."
But he said voters might be willing to shoulder a somewhat higher tax burden, if commissioners explained exactly how much money would go to keep police on the streets, fire stations from sitting empty and the deportation program in place.
"Public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of government, bar everything else, parks, libraries. They have got to keep the citizens safe," Conway said, calling the proposed cuts retribution for people speaking out against the tax increase. "If they will show the citizens those dollars, I think the citizens will go along with that. At times, I think they get arrogant and say they know what the citizens need."
Bannister declined to comment on the sheriff's comments, but he said the deportation program has become a "political football." The two fought over the implementation during last year's campaign.
Conway said he hoped to hand-deliver a signed copy of an agreement to federal officials as soon as the document is complete and vetted by lawyers. Then deputies would have to complete a month of training and another federal inspection of the jail would have to take place before the program begins.
"The public deserves what the county promised them," Bannister said of the program.
On the political statements he added, "Everyone needs to chip in and help. We really should be working together."
County Administrator Jock Connell said commissioners have shown support for reinstating the 287(g) funding. An earmark could be considered Tuesday, along with the proposed cuts.
"There's not any of these cuts that we relish making," Connell said. "If you don't want to close the prison, you have to find the money somewhere else. That's the situation we are in. ... We're going to have to make the best decision we can make among alternatives we don't like."