published Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Dalton OKs private probation services

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    Photo by Mariann Martin David Blackburn asks questions about the consolidation of city and county governments during a Dalton city council meeting Monday.

DALTON, Ga.—City Council members voted to privatize Dalton's probation services, a department that brought the city just over $100,000 in revenue last year, despite questions from a former judge about the legality of the process.

The change is the latest in a series of dust-ups involving Dalton Municipal Court. City leaders fired the judge last September, and earlier this month, several employees filed complaints about constant roof leaks and mold in the building.

During a council meeting Monday evening, Municipal Judge Jim Wilbanks recommended city leaders vote to allow a local company, Alternative Probation Services, to perform the service.

Wilbanks said he made the recommendation because he believes governments should defer to private businesses, if possible.

"Even if there was money being made, I don't believe the government needs to do what private companies can do," Wilbanks said after the meeting. "In the state of Georgia, the law allows private companies to handle probation, and the vast majority of counties use private probation companies. It has no cost to the city."

The probation department has a staff of four, with a 2011 budget of $231,140. The department had projected to bring in $379,000 in revenue from probation fees and electronic monitoring this year, according to Cindy Jackson, city finance director.

In 2010, the department spent $192,359 and brought in $292,769, Jackson said.

Under the terms of the contract, Alternative Probation Services will consider hiring the four city employees but is not required to do so, Wilbanks said.

The company will take over on March 1.

Before the vote, former Judge Jerry Moncus voiced his disapproval about the bidding process and the relationship between Alternative Probation Services and one of the council members.

Moncus was fired and Court Administrator David Hamil was forced to resign in September after questions about the collection of forfeited bonds on behalf of the city. Moncus called his firing politically motivated.

Moncus said Monday night he believes the contract with the private probation service is not legal.

But city attorney James Bisson disagreed, saying state law allows municipal courts to negotiate the service without bidding. Bisson said he investigated city Councilman Gary Crews' relationship with the company that rents a building to Alternative Probation Services and found no conflict of interest.

Wilbanks said he looked at proposals for four companies, but chose the Alternative because it is local and has highly qualified staff.

"No one else even came close to that level of integrity and experience," Wilbanks said.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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