City, county looking into road cleanup for prisoners

As the state of Georgia cuts back on roadside cleanup because of financial problems, both the city of Macon and Bibb County are looking for ways to take up the slack.

One idea Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen has proposed is to have nonviolent inmates in the county jail serve as roadside workers to clean up the right-of-ways in the state’s absence.

“We’ve got prisoners sitting in air-conditioned jails that could be out in the heat a little bit,” Allen said.

Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto has proposed a similar city resolution, and he said Municipal Court Judge Robert Faulkner raised that same question.

“We’ve got trash at every entrance to the city, and the state used to clean that up,” Hutto said.

In June, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced cuts to the roadside cleanup program. The state has one more cleanup scheduled this year and will handle any cleanups in which a driver’s view might be obstructed. The cutback is expected to save the state $10.95 million this year.

Many inmates are in jail because they can’t pay fines, such as those for speeding tickets, in part because of the poor economy. Hutto said he also would favor allowing people to do the roadside work in lieu of paying fines.

“I’d be happy for them to do that as well,” he said. “If they want to do work instead, I’m all for it.”

Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena said he has the manpower to cut the grass, but the work they could accomplish would be limited.

“The problem is we don’t have the tools,” Modena said. The sheriff’s office has some weed-eaters inmates could use on entrance and exit ramps, but larger jobs would need heavy equipment, he said.

Hutto said he has asked the City Attorney’s office to look into various issues, such as liability, having the workers use city or county equipment and whether there is a need for law enforcement or city and county employees supervising the effort. The resolution will be introduced to City Council in a couple of weeks.

Some commissioners said it’s not the county’s place to pick up slack from the state.

“I got a problem with us taking over the state’s responsibility,” Commissioner Elmo Richardson said. “If we go out there and start doing their job, I guarantee you it’s going to be the same thing with all the other stuff they’re pushing down to the local level.”

For now, some relief is coming. The state Department of Transportation is on its way down the interstate with its mowers, County Engineer Ken Sheets said at a recent commission meeting. Workers started at the north end of Henry County last week and were heading south, he said.

There are 43 miles of interstate in the unincorporated area and 13 to 14 miles inside the city limits, Sheets said. But for at least some commissioners, the issue extends beyond cutting the grass. While the areas around the interstates and state highways have been looking a bit unkempt, even some local roads are littered with trash.

“It is embarrassing to see the litter,” Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said. Add that to the fact that the grass is knee-high, and “it just does not make a good impression.”

Other cities have programs in place for inmates to do roadside work, including Fort Valley, Social Circle, Gainesville and Metter, according to information from the Georgia Municipal Association. Each of the cities uses different criteria in how they use the inmates.

Modena said he has been talking about restarting a program in which inmates pick up litter on the roadside.

“That’s a real possibility there,” he said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.