Sheriff snubs bid law

Ouachita Parish has long history using inmate labor to cut costs

By Robbie Evans and Stephen Largen • • September 5, 2010

The Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office appears poised to violate the state’s public bid law over the next year by using inmate labor to transform the former Ridgedale Academy facility in northwestern Ouachita Parish into housing for its work-release program and departmental offices.

Renovations to the facility are estimated to cost more than $250,000, well above the $150,000 limit allowed for projects to be built without following a required public bidding process.

And even though the Sheriff’s Office has been cited in its last three audits for violating public bid law by using inmate labor on construction projects, Sheriff Royce Toney, Ouachita Parish’s top law enforcement official, has said he intends to use inmate labor for Ridgedale renovations. Both Toney and former Sheriff Richard Fewell justified the department’s repeated use of inmate labor on construction projects despite violating the bid law because the practice saves taxpayer money and puts skilled inmates to work.

The practice, which started under Fewell, has continued unabated for at least four years because state offices charged with upholding the public bid law were either unaware of the findings or apparently failed to take action to stop the violations.

Fewell, who served from 2000 to 2008, said the violations in the Sheriff’s Office’s 2007 and 2008 audits related to the use of inmate labor primarily during construction of the department’s rifle range. Although he was aware of the state’s bid law requirements — for projects over $100,000 at that time — Fewell said he had to choose between violating the bid law or using inmate labor to save money.

“We were trying to save the taxpayers money or if we did go through the public bid law we couldn’t afford it,” Fewell said. “If you’ve got the skilled labor available, why not use it?”

Fewell said that for some projects, cost overruns resulted in the use of inmate labor because of a lack of funding. Inmate labor was also used to renovate the department’s work release program building at the old E.A. Conway Hospital facility.

“That was the only way I survived when I came in because we were broke,” Fewell said. “That’s how we got on our feet.”

In a prepared statement, Toney said projects such as the department’s Ouachita Parish Training Center, Public Rifle Range and Public Archery Range would not have been possible to build without the use of inmate labor.

“The training center and these ranges would not have been possible if we had contracted it out for bid,” Toney said. “We have used inmate labor, when appropriate, for construction projects like these in order to save taxpayer’s dollars. The public bid law was designed to protect and save taxpayer’s money in the first place.”

Earlier this year, the Ouachita Parish Police Jury denied a request by the Sheriff’s Office to use inmate labor and materials to build a barracks at Ouachita Correctional Center. The Police Jury had to give the approval for the project because it is responsible for the facility.

The total cost of the project using inmate labor was estimated by the Sheriff’s Office at $85,000.

“The Police Jury’s action was to pursue the project by having its architect prepare plans and specifications and put it out for bid, which is called for by the public bid law,” said Assistant 4th District Attorney Jay Mitchell, the Police Jury’s attorney. “The public bid law required that it be handled by public bid and let to the low bidder. Whether or not to follow the law is not really a choice for the Police Jury.”

As a result of the Police Jury’s effort to follow bid law, the building was redesigned and competitively bid at a cost of $422,000 — significantly more than the Sheriff’s Office’s plan projected.

Fewell said the Legislature should rework the bid law requirements for projects involving inmate labor. The Legislature has already approved numerous exceptions that allow local governing bodies considerable latitude on bid law contracts.

For example, the law was changed several years ago to allow the Bossier Parish Police Jury to set its bid contract limit at $30,000 over the existing statewide limit for public works projects using its own employees, including annual increases in the special limit based on inflation.

Another amendment allowed sparsely populated parishes to set a bid contract limit at $250,000 — more than $150,000 over the statewide bid limit in 2003 — for construction of a bridge project. It also allowed those parishes to use their own personnel on the project and prohibited a contract with a third party.

Most recently, the state allowed local governments that did not have flood insurance at the time of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to set contract limits at $300,000 before bids would have to be taken on projects to repair damage caused by the hurricanes.

“I think it needs to be changed,” Fewell said.

In his written response to The News-Star, Toney indicated that he had contacted local legislators in an attempt to change the bid law for Ouachita Parish.

Previous violations

The Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office has been cited in audits for state bid law violations in:

2006 — failed to obtain three quotes on a camera system for the work release center;

2007 — used inmate labor exceeding $100,000;

2008 — performed public work of around $650,000, which included using inmate labor valued at more than $179,000 for which no contractor was used and no bids were let;

2009 — performed work approximating $330,000 which included using inmate labor valued at over $173,000 for which no contractor was used and no bids were let.