Commissioners OK contraband detector for jail

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage County commissioners voted, 3-0, last week to approve a $125,000 expense for the purchase of a contraband detection machine for the county jail, as well as related maintenance and training. The commissioners gave the OK to use $50,000 from settlement funds that the county has received as a result of opioid litigation to help cover the cost.

This decision reversed a previous decision by the county board not to use any opioid settlement funds for the purchase of a contraband detection machine. The Osage County Sheriff’s Office made a request in late February to spend $109,408.47 of opioid settlement funds on the purchase of a contraband detector. The overall cost of the machine and related expenses was then stated as about $139,000. During the February discussion of the proposed purchase, both Assistant District Attorney Ashley Kane and Kathryn Chambers, an administrative aide to District 1 Commissioner Everett Piper, offered the view that it would probably not be permissible to use the opioid settlement funds for the contraband detector purchase.

The county board in February decided to set aside the funding request until a source of money to buy the machine could be identified.

What changed in the interim was that a representative of the Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector’s office, which will apparently be tasked with auditing the use of the opioid settlement money, offered the county an opinion in writing that would allow for the use of at least some of the settlement money on a contraband detector. Cheryl Wilson, of the Auditor and Inspector’s office, said the following in an email to Ashley Kane: “I do agree that using opioid settlement funds for the total cost of this machine is a bit of a stretch. The machine would be useful for preventing weapons and cell phones from being smuggled into the county jail; as well as the prevention of opioid distribution. Perhaps they could split the cost of the machine using other county funds for the majority of the cost and the opioid settlement funds for the rest.”

What the commissioners on March 13 approved was spending $50,000 of the opioid settlement money and another $75,000 of federal COVID-19 funding earmarked for the Sheriff’s Office on the contraband detector.

District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt, a former employee of the Sheriff’s Office, supported the proposed purchase. District 3 Commissioner Charlie Cartwright, who also has worked at the Sheriff’s Office, had concerns about whether it was appropriate, under guidelines that had been issued regarding the opioid settlement funds, to spend any of the settlement money on the detector machine.

“I’m not quite sure where the auditor gets that opinion from,” Cartwright said regarding the opinion provided by Wilson; however, citing the likely value of a detector machine in preventing weapons from getting into the county jail, Cartwright agreed to vote in favor of the purchase. Commissioner Piper, noting that Talburt and Cartwright had law-enforcement backgrounds, explained he would defer to their judgment and voted with them.

Piper noted that maintenance for the contraband detector might become a budget issue at some point in the future. Cartwright agreed, saying he thinks budgets are likely to get a lot tighter.

Osage County resident Jerry Butterbaugh, challenged the appropriateness of the use of the opioid settlement money on the contraband detector. Butterbaugh said he thought the money should, instead, be directed to area schools.

“It just seems like we would reach a whole lot more people and do a whole lot more good,” Butterbaugh said regarding the chances of influencing the citizenry in regard to opioid drug use by spending the settlement money on education rather than a piece of equipment for the county jail.

The commissioners on March 13 also approved spending more than $67,000 on the acquisition and outfitting of a 2023 Ford Explorer for the Sheriff’s Office.