April 02, 2002 11:00 pm

Receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to reimburse some of the costs of housing criminals in jail isnt new to the Union Countys Sheriffs Office.

Its happened each of the past two years.

But the notice of the grant this year came with a surprise.

Cathie Falck, senior department specialist in the sheriffs office who works on grants, opened the e-mail and discovered that the county would receive $80,551.

Its the first time that its been such a large award, Falck said.

Consider: the first year, in 2000, the grant was for $3,671. Last year, the department received $17,804. Since the jail reduced the number of inmate beds during 2001, Falck said she expected a smaller amount to be awarded.

While the formula that Justice Benefits Inc., the fund-awarding agency, uses isnt clear, Falck knows that the award is based on information the jail provides regarding the number of inmates, the types of crimes they committed, their country of birth and other factors.

Regardless of the exact reason for the award amount, the funds come at a good time for the sheriffs department.

Two sheriff deputy positions have been funded by a federal COPS grant that expired on Dec. 31. One possibility is that the grant funds may be used to maintain those positions.

That decision isnt final, but the unexpected funds may help keep deputies in place as local governments face decreasing revenues.

Union County currently has seven full-time deputies who patrol the county, along with the sheriff, the undersheriff and a sergeant.

Michelle Thorson, regional account manager for Justice Benefits Inc., explained in a letter that the money is used to support federally mandated programs that the county provides at local cost.