Etowah County may lose ICE detainees

By Dixon Hayes

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Etowah County leaders are in Washington, D.C., trying to stop or delay a move by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division to remove all of its detainees from the Etowah County Jail.

Sheriff Todd Entrekin and county commissioners got the word Tuesday that ICE plans to move all of the detainees Saturday to a facility in Georgia. They've been housed on the top two floors of the Etowah County Detention Center since 1999, many of whom are illegal aliens on the verge of being deported.

County leaders say the move would be economically devastating for the area.  They say it would cost the county 15 million dollars a year in revenue and will immediately lead to 41 layoffs in the county jail.

"It's going to be a terrible impact, especially right here at Christmastime, with no notice," says County Commissioner Jeff Overstreet. He also warns of budget shortfalls and effects on county programs.

Entrekin quickly flew to Washington, along with Chief of Corrections Scott Hassell, County CEO Patrick Simms and Commissioner (and incoming commission president) Tim Choate.  They spent Wednesday meeting with staff members of U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions and U.S. Representatives Robert Aderholt and Mike Rogers. The Etowah County Detention Center is in Gadsden, which is in Aderholt's district.

Late in the day, Entrekin sent a news release saying  "We are very pleased with the positive progress of our meetings to this point," and "We're humbled by the way Senators Shelby and Sessions and Congressmen Aderholt and Rogers have taken up our cause to ensure that Etowah County will continue to partner with ICE and the U.S. Marshal's Service to provide efficient and cost effective custody of ICE detainees in the future."

The alternative is bleak, however. The county also owes money on a bond issue used to add on to the jail years ago to house the extra detainees, and had been counting on the federal stipend to help pay off that note.

"We pay 500 thousand dollars a year on that note and that's going to leave us about a two and a half million dollars note that we've got an empty jail to try to keep up,"  says commissioner Perry Gwin.

The contract also means the beds may actually have to stay empty until it runs out in 2014.