TAMPA — The scenario sounded too bizarre to be true: jail inmates earning pension funds from Hillsborough County.
The issue made headlines last week after county officials asked incredulous state lawmakers for help ending the practice.
But just how did it all begin?
Pension contributions were an unintended consequence of a Hillsborough County program, born in the 1970s, that hires inmates into undesirable county jobs, such as ditch digging and roadway cleaning.
The program saved the county $533,000 in 2006, Public Works director Bob Gordon said. It could save even more if the county didn't have to treat the inmate workers as public employees potentially entitled to pensions.
And so, for more than two years, the county tried to close the inmate pension loophole but couldn't agree on terms with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. Finally, the county asked legislators for help.
"What people don't understand is the Sheriff's Office and Public Works were both concerned about losing this program," Gordon said, referring to the use of inmate labor by the county.
"We're all big supporters of the legislative change. Our hands were tied by the statutes."
The pension problem appears to be unique to Hillsborough County, a consequence of law enforcement agencies handling inmate labor in different ways.
In Pinellas County, convicted inmates can work on a road crew. They earn gain time, not cash, for their efforts. Gain time knocks days off their original sentences. Work release inmates do get paid, but they're employed by private enterprises, not county government, according to a Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman.
At the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, inmates work without pay on a road gang, cleaning up for the county. "They basically sign a waiver that they want to work," said Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee Sheriff's Office. "They get to go out and get out of their jail cell and do an honest day's work."
When the issue came up, Hillsborough County's Public Works officials surveyed both Pasco and Orange counties, too, and discovered that neither pays inmates for road crew work but that each county has a different system in place for labor.
When Public Works brought its research to the Sheriff's Office, it was told none of the other plans would work as a model for Hillsborough County, Gordon said.
Hillsborough sheriff's Col. David Parrish says that's because in most counties deputies supervise the road crews.
The Sheriff's Office doesn't have the manpower to supervise inmates in road crews, Parrish said.
"Our position is, from our legal staff, that when an inmate is in the custody of the sheriff, sentenced to the county jail, the sheriff can't turn them over to someone else," he said. "The only way that we would have inmates out working somewhere is if they were supervised by a deputy."
One exception: inmates on work release.
When they leave jail to work in the community, it's with a judge's approval, so no deputy supervises them.
That's why Hillsborough sheriff's officials wanted inmates to be paid as county employees through the work release program.
But the county didn't like having to make pension contributions on behalf of the inmates. Hillsborough County has paid at least $162,741 in retirement benefits to the state pension system since 2002, according to state data.
"We went back and forth and back and forth until we realized we were getting nowhere with this," Gordon said. "We said, we're just going to have no choice at this point but to get the Legislature involved."
County officials were pleased to learn that lawmakers recognized their dilemma last week, when a Florida Senate committee passed a measure to prohibit inmates from accruing public retirement benefits. A similar measure was moving through the House.
"We were in a dilemma and even though there's been some fairly good-natured humor at Hillsborough County, we are grateful to the Legislature," Gordon said.
Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3373.