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Editorial: No easy solution to jail issues

The volatility of the jail population has Hubbard County in a dilemma.

Should it cap its inmate population or strike while the iron is hot? It’s feast or famine, it seems.

A heated discussion took place at a recent county board meeting as to how to manage the jail population.

Sheriff Cory Aukes disagreed that the board capped the population at 60, give or take one or two. County minutes of the meeting say the board did.

Aukes understandably wants to maximize jail profits by taking all comers.

The board, burned before on this topic, wants the brakes put on. Board members recall the days when spending on jail salaries eclipsed the supposed windfall of bringing more inmates into the fold.

At least one commissioner subscribes to Aukes’ theory that the cost charged for lodging each inmate goes into a “profit” setting, with little deducted for costs, meals, medical care or jail salaries.

That seems like faulty math.

In trying to reach actual costs, the board did something right, however.

It voted to spend $17,500 on a consultant’s study as to how the jail makes money and the point at which it doesn’t.

While jail rates will rise to $55 per inmate per day, there doesn’t seem to be a set cost to housing an inmate per day, above which profits can be measured – or losses can fall.

That is something the board should expect to see and should be furnished. Does it cost $25 a day to house an inmate? $35? $65? No one knows.

It seems that jail revenues and expenditures are elastic and can be manipulated to prove or disprove a point. An outside consultant theoretically doesn’t have a dog in the fight, so the figures should be reliable.

Aukes disagreed with spending the funds on the theory that the consultant would be telling commissioners what he already has.

The sheriff should be commended for trying to maximize profits since taxpayers may have been sold a bill of goods when the facility was built and projected revenues fell flat, but the revenues and expenses have gotten a bit murky from there on.

For the first quarter of 2014, the jail revenues reached $94,500, which will easily outpace expected revenues of $210,500 for 2014.

Oversimplifying the expenses, glossing over whether the levy goes up or down as a result of the jail, doesn’t clarify the big picture.

Maybe it’s time for a regional jail facility, a multi-county venture that would have costs and revenues parceled out based on population and multiple checks and balances. It might stop each facility’s shopping for a better deal. Certainly a multi-jurisdictional management plan that would cost each county could better apportion costs.

But until those costs come into focus better, jail hopping to find the best deal seems to be the way of the future.