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HC Board tries to figure the ‘break-even’ point for jail

Trying to get an exact handle on jail costs was like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall Tuesday for the Hubbard County Board.

In a work session, the board tried to figure if it’s worth expanding the jail capacity to accommodate neighboring counties’ inmates, or whether in doing so the math becomes a zero-sum game.

Staffing and average daily population drive the costs, commissioners agreed.

At a per diem rate of $55 per inmate housed from out of county, the commissioners guessed that around $51 per day are fixed costs. Of that, $30 per day is allocated for repayment of the jail bonds.

“The big question is when do we take the big leap to staff to 99?” commissioner Kathy Grell asked.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes maintains that the jail should be filled to capacity so the county can make money.

That brought a sharp rebuke from Grell and an admission from Aukes that “99 is not going to be realistic.”

“Let’s eliminate that word ‘profit’ because there’s no profit in this,” Grell said. Profit, she acknowledged, is “less of a loss.”

“It’s how much risk we want to take,” commissioner Matt Dotta said. “The less volatility we have in this model, the better.”

The board was working from a spreadsheet not furnished to the media, plugging in numbers of inmates, which brought up corresponding costs.

Beginning in July, the jail will take state inmates under a contract that guarantees 20 inmates. Becker County has guaranteed 10 inmates under a contract. Cass County wants to use the jail but does not want to guarantee a certain number of inmates.

The volatility in the equation is that the Hubbard County population on its own fluctuates from around 30-50 inmates. With the outside contracts, it could reach peak performance.

Another uncertainty is that the jail has a wing for female inmates, so the right mix of males to females must be reached, which is around a 3:1 mix of males to females.

Aukes wants to go for the money and strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. Last year, Cass paid Hubbard County $60,000 in revenues for housing inmates.

But Grell believes that of the costs per day of inmates, Hubbard County is subsidizing its own inmates to some extent and she’s not sure local taxpayers should be doing that for other counties.

“I don’t think the taxpayers of Hubbard County should subsidize Becker County’s inmates,” echoed Dotta.

“Cass, if they don’t want to do a contract they can come if we have room,” said commissioner Cal Johannsen, a former deputy sheriff.

The number of part-time jailers is also an issue because if they exceed 30 hours per week, they must be paid benefits. Currently the jail has around 30 part-time staff and Aukes wants to keep plenty on hand to cover for vacations, sick leave and an inmate influx.

No decisions were made, but the commission seemed to lean toward housing 75-85 inmates.

“The mid-80s we can manage with adequate staffing,” Aukes said.

In 2013 the jail averaged 34 inmates daily. The board budgeted for an average of 37 inmates a day for 2014.

“Over 50 we’re adding part-time staff,” Aukes said.

The question is whether the cost of adding staff reduces profits and at what point the break-even is.

Both board members and Aukes questioned some of the findings of an out-of-state consultant, which seemed to muddy the waters of the financial picture.

Because the group was in a work session and not an official meeting, no action was taken.

Sarah Smith

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

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