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Jail occupancy capped at 60; event barn proposes opening

Holding cell when an inmate is first booked. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

By Sarah Smith

An exchange that was alternately heated and humorous occurred Tuesday when Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes asked the county board for more people to expand the jail capacity.

Been there, done that, he was told. Aukes left the meeting shaking his head.

The long shot is that jail capacity for now will be capped at 60 inmates and Aukes can fill it any way he chooses.

Stung by six-digit deficits in the past and projected revenues that never panned out, the board treated the sheriff like a slick-talking shyster at times, demanding better documentation of how the jail makes money and what the drop-dead point was.

“I want to fill this jail,” board chair Kathy Grell said. “We have this space that’s been underutilized.”

Above that figure of 60 inmates, returns would stall as they did in the past, Grell maintained when Aukes, in a letter to the board, said that “every month this opportunity gets delayed, the county is losing out on $50,000 to $67,000 each month on lost revenue.”

Aukes asked to hire four full-time jailers and a full-time jail administrator.

Currently the jail has an interim administrator, Joe Henry, brought on board when former jail administrator Sherri Klasen was demoted last fall. The board approved a search for her replacement, which likely will be Henry, the facility’s program director.

The board did approve the jail signing a contract to board 20 Department of Corrections inmates and 10 Becker County inmates.

With daily inmate totals hovering around 46, that could bring the population over 60, Aukes said.

And the board did raise the daily inmate fee to $55, up from the sliding scale of $42 to $46 per day the facility has been charging.

But boosting the jail’s annual expenses by $500,000 with a return of an estimated $100,000 in profits did not make sense to the board.

Aukes estimated profits could rise to $271,199 annually by taking inmates from Cass, Wadena and Beltrami Counties, along with the state prisoners.

The math was not working for Grell and she was blunt about it. She pointed out that part-time and overtime staff wages are a fourth of the jail’s budget.

Beyond that, Grell said, “I’m not willing to jump off that cliff. Last year you were $59,000 over budget but $116,000 over expenses.”

When Aukes tried to explain the figures, saying a minimal levy hike might be needed, Grell shot back, “I want that in blood.”

“We should fill it to 60 beds with the staff we’ve got,” council member Cal Johannsen said.

Aukes tried to tell the board it’s not good business to turn away help for neighboring counties.

Becker County just backed out of a deal with Clay County to house its inmates, citing sticker shock. Becker County periodically needs extra space for its inmates and Wadena County is short of space, too.

Aukes said he doesn’t want the board to curtail his ability to bring in more revenues and more inmates.

“I’m not willing to hire five people without knowing what it’s going to look like,” Grell said.

But the board did agree to look at a consultant to advise jail staff on what the break-even point would be.

Jail rates will rise May 1.

In other business, the board:

n Confirmed a work session to discuss certifying the county’s gravel pits. That is set for April 8 at 9 a.m. Gravel pits would have to spray for weeds, but certification would allow operators to seek more contract work, they told the board.

n Approved the South Transfer Station’s increased summer hours starting April 19. That week the transfer station in Park Rapids will be open all day Saturdays.

n Approved a new classification for a senior IT specialist. That is a new position the Classification Committee recommended.

n Agreed to amend the Shoreland Management Ordinance to add an events center use. The recommendation goes to the Planning Commission to draft the language for an events center/assembly hall development on non-riparian lots.

The amendment came as the result of a Nevis couple who want to open an event barn on Lake Belle Taine that would celebrate weddings, reunions, graduations and other large-scale events accommodating up to 300 people. Brent and Lindsey Nicklason plan on opening FireFly event barn Aug. 1 if the ordinance amendment goes through.

n Approved a preliminary plat of West Portage Estate by Portage Investments, LLC to plat 15+ acres in Todd Township into six residential lots.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364