Martin County’s fiscal woes prompted at least one county councilman to question the means by which Sheriff Tony Dant gets paid.

Because while Councilman John Stoll said Dant no doubt deserves the roughly $100,000 a year he earns as the county’s chief law enforcement officer, Stoll also thinks that may be a bit much considering the sacrifices other workers were forced to make in 2006. From no raises to higher insurance premiums, and with inflation figured in, there’s no doubt county employees will work for less next year.

Two weeks ago, Stoll approached the commissioners, asking if they understood how Dant’s earnings were figured. He was instructed to put together some information, including facts and figures, and return to Tuesday’s commission meeting, according to Martin County Commissioner John Collins.

Stoll, however, didn’t attend Tuesday night’s meeting, the last of this year.

That means it will be next year before the sheriff has to defend the way he’s paid, if in fact the issue arises again. The county council briefly touched on the payment plan during last fall’s tedious budget sessions but never really delved into it.

It may because it’s a little hard to understand, according to other area sheriffs who no longer base their earnings on how much money they spend to feed inmates each day. The state sets the maximum amount that can be spent at $1.82 per meal per inmate per day, and the sheriff receives that money from the county to pay the grocery bills. Whatever is left is gravy, but not for the mashed potatoes.

So if the Martin County Jail holds roughly 60 inmates, and Dant receives $1.82 per meal per day per prisoner, the county is budgeting and spending about $327 a day or $119,500 a year to feed their jailed population. But if Dant can feed them decent meals for less than that — and the meals must be decent and at least one per day must be hot — then the leftover money is his.

For this year, that’s added up to about $85,000 left over, money Dant keeps on top of his minimal $25,500 budgeted salary.

All sheriffs in Indiana used to pocket the money not spent to feed their prisoners. Back then, it was the sheriff’s responsibility to make sure they ate just as it is now, but long before county jails were outfitted with modern kitchens, inmate meals might have been prepared at the sheriff’s home. And back in those days, sheriffs earned so little in salary compensation, pocketing left over meal money was the only way to make the position worthwhile and attract decent candidates, according to Daviess County Sheriff Jerry Harbstreit, who’s paid a salary based on a contract with the county.

“On the meal plan system, the county pays the sheriff’s base salary plus meals,” Harbstreit explained. “The county pays for the food based on the state mandated amount, and anything I can save from that goes in my pocket.”

Just as important, the amount the sheriff keeps as income also affects his pension, so the more he earns, the higher his pension. And for sheriffs like Dant who worked years for low pay, he said the high earnings as sheriff are often considered payback for the lean years. Especially in Martin County where Dant was earning just over $25,000 as chief deputy, the position he held before being elected sheriff three years ago. Come Jan. 1, Dant will start his 22nd year with the Martin County Sheriff’s Department, having started as a road deputy.

Today, deputies start at about $23,000 a year in Martin County, but jailers earn less than $20,000, considered low pay even for such a rural region. In neighboring Daviess County, top-paid jailers earned more than $25,000 in 2004, and rookies start at just under $22,000.

Daviess County also caught Stoll’s attention because the councilman learned that Harbstreit had contracted with a food vendor to have meals brought in to the jail at under a dollar a meal. And Harbstreit, who doesn’t pocket anything on meal spending, said the plan is working well so far. Still, Dant says he can’t copy Daviess County’s plan even if he wanted to because he just doesn’t have the space.

“I don’t have the kitchen Jerry has,” said Dant, explaining how Harbstreit orders in bulk and stores the meals in huge walk-in refrigerators and freezers. “I don’t think John (Stoll) understands that.”

Although Dant doesn’t have to manage an older, overcrowded jail like the sheriff of Knox County, he also doesn’t have a brand new, state-of-the-art facility like Harbstreit now operates. So while the Martin County jail isn’t ancient and has some technological perks, the 13-year-old security center still houses an old-style kitchen, much like the one Sheriff Steve Luce oversees in Vincennes. Kitchen workers in Martin County’s facility stack bread on racks in the hallway around the corner from the kitchen and have two average-size chest and one upright freezer to store food downstairs.

The main refrigerator in the kitchen, which also houses an institutional size stove with four big burners, is now stuffed with everyday needs like creamer, milk and the four 10-pound turkeys bought for the inmates’ annual Christmas dinner. In the basement, the large frozen pumpkin pies Dant bought for less than $6 each at Sam’s Club will also be eaten at Sunday’s holiday meal. Dant said he spends locally when he can, but does shop for bargains, too.

Another long-term problem with paying sheriffs based on meal money was the temptation to shortchange the prisoners by serving cold sandwiches and chips day in and day out, explained Luce, who also earns a flat salary from the county. The previous Knox County sheriff, Jerry Mooney, did figure his earnings from the meal plan, and inmates have said in recent years that Luce feeds them much better.

But that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Martin County where the only complaint was the size of portions. Dant serves good food, though, said several women on the security center’s cell block F.

“The food is good and always plentiful, and they always serve dessert, and we have hot food,” said Nancy Northington, a former Evansville resident jailed from Vanderburgh County for shoplifting and intimidation with a weapon.

One of Dant’s paying inmates, Northington brings in $35 a day for the Martin County general fund, as do all out-of-county or state department of corrections prisoners. That means big money for the county, said Dant, who tries to keep empty beds full.

On Tuesday, for instance, the jail had 37 paying inmates which other counties pay for, which translates into $1,295 a day or more than $40,000 a month.

Sometimes the county houses fewer prisoners for other counties or the state because local criminals must be served, too. But wintertime usually means lower county crime, so Dant expects to earn quite a bit for local coffers, at least until spring.

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