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Jail costs crippling the county

Jail expenses - where the money goes

When Don Carlson decided to run for public office in 2006, he campaigned against government spending run amok, with one target in mind - the Hubbard County Law Enforcement building, under construction at the time.

"It was so far out of skew that I just knocked on doors and told people what was happening and I won," the retired dentist recalled.

Is closure an option?

Two years into his term, now vice-chairman of the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners, Doc, as everyone calls him, wonders if the county would be better off shutting the three-year-old jail down.

He - and his fellow commissioners - are getting increasingly alarmed that the operational costs of the facility are crippling the county; it might be more fiscally responsible to close the doors and ship the 30-some inmates it currently houses to other facilities.

Although the notion seems preposterous, it's becoming popular with taxpayers burdened by the costs, judging from reaction to a story that ran two weeks ago.

"Shut the damned thing down," said one man who lives in the northern part of the county and frequently weighs in on what he perceives as a massive failure and waste of money. His was one of the more printable comments.

"It has been mentioned but nothing has been looked at very deeply," commissioner Greg Larson admitted. "It would be pretty drastic to mothball the whole thing and use the old facility again."

The $10 million building - actually $9.789 million - has never had occupants on the second floor, said Hubbard County Auditor Pam Heeren.

If the operational costs of the jail continue to rise as they have, it may make fiscal sense to lock the doors - without inmates in cells. The story two weeks ago touched a nerve beyond taxpayers who called. The newspaper heard from county officials and jail staff.

Differences over the costs

Jail administrator Sherri Klasen took issue with several points in the story, mainly that the facility has never fulfilled financial expectations. And she says the jail only cost $7 million, not $10 million.

"That $7 million figure was the original bid," explained Heeren. With change orders, rising construction costs, demolition, asbestos removal and the price to buy out adjoining homes for the land acquisition, the price tag rose to nearly $10 million for the Law Enforcement Center, which houses the jail.

Heeren and County Coordinator Jack Paul said there have been no financial figures segregated to build the jail alone since it's one building.

"Aren't they all support?" Heeren questioned of the law enforcement personnel occupying the south end of the building. "It would seem it's all one."

Klasen also pointed out that in 2007 the jail's revenues from boarding out-of-county inmates exceeded projected revenues. They did, by about $62,000.

But that same year, part-time jail staff wages rose from $8,276.93 in 2006 to $99,102.29 in 2007; meal costs rose from $87,767.27 to feed inmates in 2006 to $144,895.19 in 2007. So what the facility gained in 2007 revenues, it spent two-fold to attain them.

Charting the past

The Enterprise scrutinized jail expenses over a three-year period, from its opening in 2006 through 2008. Many of the major expenditures have been put in the accompanying chart.

During that period, the costs to operate just the jail portion of the law enforcement center increased more than $500,000. The annual bond payment, an obligation that will run until 2025, is around $640,000 this year. It's not part of the operational costs.

When the jail budgeted $250,000 in revenues last year, but only collected $58,950, county commissioners reacted in horror.

"Why didn't the other costs go down, too?" Heeren questioned, voicing the sentiments of the board. And that's where they want the bleeding stopped.

"It doesn't make any difference what the building costs because you will pay that off eventually," Carlson said. The building will be an asset to the county.

"But your costs of operations are what you really have to be concerned with because you will never pay off the cost of operations," he said. "They go on forever."

The daily population

Carlson's frustration led him to embark on his own investigation into the daily inmate population.

"I came up with an average inmate number of somewhere in the low 30s" per month, he said.

The facility is designed to hold 116 prisoners. Because a Minnesota Department of Corrections examination found some deficient areas, the facility needs a minimum of 16 jailers, plus dispatchers, "plus a slew of part-time personnel," Paul said, to operate.

There has been talk of relocating some district court employees and functions to the building's vacant second floor, since the court administration personnel are squeezed for space. With cuts to the judicial system and the state financially hurting, those moves could be years away.

Larson said the county has also discussed shutting down the female wing and laying off jail personnel.

He said he was given the figure of $55,000 annually to house the county's inmates elsewhere. That figure may be very low.

In 2006, before the jail opened and Hubbard County had to ship out its inmates, it spent $72,316.76 to house them elsewhere for about half of the year.

The costs would fluctuate, depending on the number of inmates the county has. Transportation costs of ferrying prisoners to and from court appearances would also vary, depending on inmate numbers and gasoline prices.

But they certainly wouldn't rise to the $1.8 million in operational costs the facility incurred in 2008.

Waiting it out

Larson said the cautious approach would be to wait it out because he's not sure the current jail population trend will remain low, but he admits he's also not sure how long taxpayers will be patient.

When the jail population was increasing by two inmates a day, building the facility seemed a prudent response, Larson said.

Klasen said jail populations throughout the state are down.

Larson believes demographics are one reason. "It's a reflection of the population getting older," he said. "Baby Boomers' kids are grown up. Look at the schools. They're under-populated. We have less people in that 15-25 year age group."

Larson said the original vision called for Hubbard County becoming a regional jail facility, drawing inmates from surrounding counties. He holds out hope it can come to fruition.

Talks are still under way, he said, about the regional center, with a board that would run it.

"It would relieve the local sheriffs of that responsibility," he said.

That approach could take years, too, because neighboring counties such as Cass have entered into long-term contracts with other facilities.

Pressure to build

County officials say a juggernaut of political pressure permeated the atmosphere when the county proposed the facility several years ago - the reason Carlson said he got into the race in the first place. Commissioners have begun referring to the facility as "an albatross around our necks."

They also blame the Enterprise, for jumping on the bandwagon promoting the facility.

"During that (building) process anybody who questioned the jail was almost unpatriotic," Larson recalled.

Paul recalls performing a cost-benefit analysis several years ago, which he said was ignored. The county, he said, would have to ship out 44 inmates a day to justify spending for the new facility.

"We've never sent out that many inmates ever," he said.

Now the commissioners face some difficult decisions about how much taxpayers will continue to spend to keep an albatross alive - and whether they want to take that drastic step.