Archive for Saturday, June 26, 2004

County already outgrowing jail

Taxpayers picking up cost of keeping overflow inmates elsewhere

June 26, 2004


Douglas County taxpayers are paying the price for a 5-year-old jail that's already overcrowded.

The jail, opened in September 1999 at a cost of $22 million, is holding so many prisoners that on average 10 county inmates are being jailed daily elsewhere in the state.

"We've run out of room," said Craig Weinaug, county administrator. "The judges are putting more people in jail. They're filling it -- and more."

At an average $50 a day for each inmate housed elsewhere, next year's overflow is expected to cost the county $182,500.

And county taxpayers have little hope of escaping even wider financial implications of the jail's overcrowding, which Weinaug outlined in his recommended budget for the Sheriff's Office next year:

  • Spending $182,500 to lock up county inmates in other jails, up from about $1,100 a year ago, could be compounded by the overcrowding. The jail has less room to house inmates from other counties, cutting into potential revenue.
  • Hiring three new corrections officers, a move designed to help ease staff pressures exacerbated by overcrowding, would cost the county $108,000.
  • Paying overtime in the Sheriff's Office would soak up $675,000, up $100,000 from this year's budget. Sheriff's officials already anticipate spending $875,000 this year on overtime, a $300,000 overrun rooted largely at the jail.

Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to conduct budget hearings Monday and Tuesday at the county courthouse, 1100 Mass. Subjects to be reviewed and when:¢ 8:45 a.m. to 10:05 a.m. Monday: Overview, Watkins Community Museum of History, Lawrence Humane Society, Douglas County Extension Service, Douglas County Soil Conservation Service, Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.¢ 10:05 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. Monday: Visiting Nurses Assn., Jayhawk Area Agency on Aging, economic development, Independence Inc., The Shelter Inc., Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, Douglas County Legal Aid, Baldwin Lumberyard Arts Center.¢ Departments scheduled for hearings beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday: Youth Services, Public Works, Sheriff, Emergency Communications, District Court, Administrative Services.

The mounting costs come as other county departments are being asked to cut back on training, bypass new hiring and hold the line on programs and projects that otherwise could be expanded to serve a growing population.

Among requests not included in the recommended budget: $80,000 to cover losses at Douglas County Visiting Nurses, $80,000 to expand the county's road-repaving list from two miles to three miles, and $25,000 to renovate restrooms at the Watkins Community Museum of History.

'It's ... uncontrollable'

In all, the 2005 sheriff's budget would increase by $671,000, up 9 percent from the $7.34 million budget this year that already is anticipated to finish $150,000 over budget.

"It's unexpected and uncontrollable," Weinaug said, describing the recommended increase. His overall $47.5 million county budget for next year faces commission review beginning Monday.

"It's a startling jump," he said. "It's the single biggest thing in the budget. And what's frustrating is it's something that really is beyond our control. We can't say, 'OK, this line item is used up, so we can't take this prisoner, judge, that you just sent to our jail.' That's not an option.

"Nor can we go tell the judge, 'Hey, find fewer people guilty. Put fewer people in our jails, because we've hit our budget.' We can't do that."

Weinaug figures that a number of factors are driving more people into the jail:

  • Changes in laws, sentencing guidelines and other legislative and judicial shifts have added to the inmate population.
  • Increased pressure on state prisons is keeping more felons in the county jail longer.
  • Closure of state mental hospitals in recent years has put more potential criminal offenders back on the streets.

Exactly how to address the shifting demands -- the jail is averaging more than 150 inmates a day this year, up from 111 three years ago -- remains an open question, said Maj. Ken McGovern, undersheriff.

Growing concerns

The department already is looking into adjusting guard shifts from eight hours a week to 12 hours a week, a move that could reduce overtime costs in a building overcrowded less than five years after it locked up its first inmate.

"Is it ever going to slow down? That's the million-dollar question," McGovern said. "You build what you think you can afford and need. The next thing you know, you're already overcrowded. It's just like the state institutions; they're overcrowded. Everybody's overcrowded."

But the county jail, at least, has room to grow.

The existing jail, built on Franklin Road at the southeastern edge of town, has 196 beds, of which 140 are designed to handle maximum-, medium- and minimum-security inmates. The jail was built so that it could be expanded to have 300 beds without adjusting the building's central observation core, Weinaug said, a key to controlling oversight costs.

But adding onto the jail, even as designed, could reach into millions of dollars. That's why county officials already have started preparing for a scaled-back plan.

The jail's underutilized work-release pod -- a 56-bed section that averages anywhere from four to seven inmates at a time -- would be converted into a more secure area. The overhauled section then would be able to detain medium-security inmates, the jail's most space-starved population.

Expansion options

Preliminary estimates for renovating the pod now hover near $300,000, a "seat-of-the-pants" figure that could rise or fall based upon a detailed examination of the building's configuration and needed upgrades, Weinaug said.

Where that money would come from remains undecided. Commissioners could dip into their $3.6 million capital improvements fund, a source set aside for street upgrades, new buildings and other large construction projects.

Commissioners also could issue bonds backed by sales taxes. A 1-cent countywide sales tax approved by voters in 1994 put the initial jail project in motion, and the county continues paying off the debt.

Commissioners will get a chance to weigh such issues beginning at 8:45 a.m. Monday. That's when the commission is scheduled to open budget hearings, a process that leads into an approved county budget in August.

Sheriff Rick Trapp is scheduled to justify his department's needs before commissioners from 9:15 a.m. to 9:55 a.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 1100 Mass.

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