- Cullman, Alabama


May 11, 2014

Editorial: Meal money violates trust

As various local political candidates dash toward the June 3 primary, a troublesome issue remains unattended on the table.

Commonly known as “meal money,” sheriffs across the state receive federal and state dollars to feed jail inmates in their respective counties. The discrepancies in this system allowed by state law are plentiful.

A sheriff has two choices where the money is concerned. One is to feed prisoners and use the remainder for personal or community purposes. The second is to beg the county commission to take over the disbursement of the money.

Few voters understand the issue. But everyone should know that the money is not directed to any law enforcement office. The money goes directly to the sheriff. It becomes a personal account upon that individual taking office. Each year that a sheriff holds office he can pocket or give away leftover money. He also must pay taxes on the remaining money.

The system is completely numb of common sense. A sheriff who doesn’t want to handle the money is pretty much stuck with it and is wide open to political criticism.

This issue can only be resolved by the Legislature. Lawmakers could simply wipe out this law and set up a system that is fair to sheriffs and the taxpayers.

Alabama law is allowing individual sheriffs to take taxpayers’ money and create a personal bank account that can mean huge profits on a personal level. There is no responsibility in this system that does justice to the taxpayers.

County commissioners argue that it’s cheaper for a sheriff to buy the food for inmates through the existing system. Perhaps not. Most sheriffs have plenty of money left over at the end of a year. So even if the bid process through a county commission is higher, at least taxpayer money does not go to an individual’s profit.

Taxpayers deserve better guardianship over their money than what the state of Alabama is providing in this matter. The meal money should be stripped from the sheriffs and placed into a system that can be monitored and used appropriately. Sheriffs, on the other hand, could be granted pay raises that reflect the level of responsibility they carry. Using taxpayers’ dollars to compensate political office holders is wrong, no matter what spin is offered by other politicians.

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