The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office plans to close its budget gap this year by expanding its jail bed rental program, opening as many as 60 beds to state parolees in the substance-abuse program.
The 24 beds already committed to the Colorado Department of Corrections bring the county about $369,000 each year. Housing as many as 60 would mean a net profit of $553,000 annually, though the partnership is expected to complicate jail operations and increase workload for staff.
“We’re not thrilled, but we want to do our part,” said Sheriff Sean Smith.
The county is dealing with a tighter budget in 2017, stemming from a steep decline in property tax revenue.
The Sheriff’s Office is finalizing an agreement with the Department of Corrections, and officials expect to start a six-month pilot by the end of January.
To handle the new intakes, the Sheriff’s Office intends to use existing resources and rotate staff members from patrol, investigations and administration divisions, Detentions Division Cpt. Larry Foukas said. Otherwise, the department would need to add five full-time employees.
But rotating staff members could mean diminished services to county residents, such as longer response times.
“The last issue is one we can’t predict: How will this affect the morale and commitment of staff?” Smith said.
Smith and detention division deputies floated the proposal to La Plata County commissioners in a recent meeting. Commissioners criticized the state’s per-inmate rate, which is set by the General Assembly each year and applies to all county detention centers, regardless of size and operational expenses.
The daily cost to house an inmate for the Sheriff’s Office is $11.52. The Department of Corrections’ pay rate is $53.65, which means a daily net profit of $42.13 per inmate.
“The way it’s described, a 60-bed level is a very big concern,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “When the burden is on our staff, it looks like we’re subsidizing the state. I’d be hard-pressed to tell our citizens they have to wait longer because we’re helping the state.”
The additional bed rental program is not considered a sustainable long-term plan but a temporary patch to boost county income. County administration and the Sheriff’s Office will meet in July to evaluate the program’s success and determine if it should continue.
The additional beds are in the jail’s older units, which are not in use. Smith said 37 beds are ready to go in two of the older cellblocks, and minor renovations in a third pod will make room for another 20.
The Sheriff’s Office weighed multiple options for bed rentals in the past year, including housing state inmates with mental health issues. The Department of Corrections pays more for those inmates, but accommodating them would mean higher medical costs, higher risk to deputies and specialized training for the county.
“The parole program means we just provide housing, and the state will pay for treatment and counseling,” Smith said. “We think it’s the lowest-risk population out of all the different markets. Those people are incentivized to be there because they have to do the treatment or go back to jail.”
The Department of Corrections will provide transportation both ways, and inmates will not be released in La Plata County.
Minor medical incidents will be handled in-house, but Smith said the county will be exempt of liability for incidents in which inmates are taken outside the facility for treatment.
“We worked out a legal agreement that limits our liability in most ways,” Smith said. “We just have liability when it comes to staff wrongdoing – and we have that every day.”
The jail accepts overflow from the state as well as surrounding counties on a case-by-case basis, which generated $480,000 in 2015. Expanding the parole program, depending on how many the state sends, will limit available space for other agencies’ overflow.
Fremont County, which has held a similar contract with the state for about two years, had its own set of problems and benefits through the program.
Sheriff Jim Beicker could not quantify the numbers precisely but said medical costs at the 230-bed detention center have gone up.
“A lot of the folks that come in are just not healthy; they have bad teeth, or mental health issues they’ve treated with illegal drugs, or they have prescribed medication they abuse or don’t take – they just come with stuff,” Beicker said. “I have a medical provider, and they very much notice the increase in acute care.”
The county’s contract does not specify a committed bed count, Beicker said, so the number of inmates fluctuates. State intakes have not disrupted staffing and hours because the Department of Corrections provided a liaison that helps manage the program.
“With this program, I do have less problems with them than the regular violators because they have some motivation to stay in the program,” Beicker said.