GEORGETOWN – With everything being laid out on the table, the Brown County Commissioners are in the process of forming a Brown County Jail Task Force to evaluate the operation cost at the Brown County Jail to ensure the taxpayers are getting the best deal for their dollar.
The Commissioners are working on assembling a 8-10 member task force to evaluate options for housing inmates at the Brown County Jail. Work has began to fill the task force from the list of names brought to the Commissioners by County and Village offices.
“It looks like we are going to be between 8-10 people on the task force and make sure we have balance,” Commissioner Barry Woodruff said. “I think when they start crunching numbers it’s going to wake up a lot of folks. People are going to say ‘hey maybe we need to sharpen our pencil here in the county’”
In November, the County paid roughly $117,000 to house inmates at the Butler County Jail, however this did not include travel cost, food cost, and other miscellaneous expenses incurred by the jail and its staff with keeping the lights on to book inmates and use the six-hour hold the Adult Detention Center has been approved for.
The idea of the regional jail is on the table, but nothing is set in stone by the Commissioners. According to reports, Brown, Adams, and Scioto County could begin a studying the cost of a regional jail concept to curb overcrowding of their facilities. Woodruff said his biggest concern comes when someone can’t pay the bill.
“If you have a two or county county co-op so to speak and one county calls out of the clear blue and says ‘we can’t pay our freight next year’ what do you do,” Woodruff said. “What recourse do the two or three counties have and fiscal emergencies and part of the problem (for Scioto County) was assuming they were going to have beds rented to other counties or federal prisoners and evidently that did not pan out. All I am saying as one Commissioner, I don’t want to see us get into that jam and I think the jail task force will be able to help us look at that.”
In 2009 Scioto County became the first county in Ohio to be declared in fiscal emergency for unfunded liabilities and a budget deficit of over $2 million, much of which can be attributed to debts on a new jail built in 2006. The 196 bed facility remained half used and the over $6 million in bond debt could not be paid. However, Scioto County was declared out of its fiscal emergency situation in June 2014.
The Columbus Dispatch reported in 2009 much of the problems with the Scioto County came as a result of building the jail. According to Thomas Reisner, a Scioto County Commissioner at the time, the jailed proved to be too expensive to build and operate in the same Dispatch report.
In July of 2015, Auditor of State Dave Yost visited Portsmouth and was happy with the progress they had mad fiscally.
“I’m very pleased about the progress that is being made financially,” Yost told Frank Lewis of the Daily Times in Portsmouth. “The county looks like they’re staying solid. The city is making some progress and we’re hopeful there that they’re going to make it around the corner.”
With everything being on the table at this time, a regional jail is certainly in the mix. One option thrown around has been a regional jail that would operate multiple multi-county system much like that of the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, which opened in 1998. The 219 bed facility cost a little more than $4.2 million per year to operate for the five counties it serves. However, based on how the cost is split, each county pays a different amount for the cost.
Cost of the jail is split by the average number of beds used by a county on the previous three years and at what percent a county used for occupation. For example in a 219 inmate jail and with Brown County’s inmate population being roughly 80 per day during the month, Brown County would be responsible for 36.5 percent of the cost during that particular month. However, the cost is split monthly so a county may not know what percent of inmates they occupied during a particular month, and that can blow a budget over the course of a year long period.
The number is configured by a three year average of beds used on a month-to-month basis. If Brown County were in an agreement similar to that of the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, Brown County would pay close to $140,000 per month for their portion of the jail, but could change monthly. If the population remained stable and there were no unused beds for the jail, in this scenario it would cost the county roughly $1.64 million to fund housing for inmates, but exclude sheriff operations, travel cost associated with bringing inmates to court and utilities for the facility.
The Brown County problem is going to come at it headway soon enough. The Commissioners and Sheriff’s Department are going to have to look for help from outside of Brown County to house inmates, even if the Department of Corrections allowed for an population increase variance to exceed 38 inmates.
“We are going to have to partner with somebody,” Woodruff said. “Even if we could double bunk, which we are asking the State’s permission to do to increase our capacity, we are still going to have periods where we have 80-90-100 inmates. We are going to have to have a relief valve somewhere. Whether its Butler or Clermont we are going to have to have somebody work with us. Both have wanted to work with us and Clermont is obviously closer, but Clermont cannot take female inmates.”
Female inmates are a huge concern among jails. Currently, with the offer from Clermont County, no female inmates can be housed at the facility. At Southeastern Regional Jail they are currently turning away female inmates who would otherwise be housed at the facility. At the time of the Adult Detention Center shut down Brown County had 34 female inmates in a jail designed to hold just 38 people.
“The problem always comes back to other counties saying we can accept your inmates at x dollars per day, but we can’t take your females,” Woodruff said. “That problem is going to be long term to work through and is a dilemma for a bunch of counties to work through.”
Woodruff said looking at the Brown County Adult Detention Center to be a female regional jail the state would have to allow the variance to increase the capacity, citing the 34 female inmates at the time of shut down. However, if the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation allowed a variance to double the inmate population, the county may consider it saying “everything is on the table at this point.”
The answer likely comes from the ballot box in the form of a public safety levy to ensure the jail operation. The task force will be evaluating options across the board from the Clermont County offer, continuing at Butler County, or a regional jail concept that works like Southeastern.
“It’s all going to come down to what the taxpayers of this county want,” Woodruff said. “If they are not willing to take freight on it, we have a problem.”
The incarceration business is becoming a new revenue stream from counties and Brown could be the next to try to take advantage of it. However the Commissioners were concerned at the number of available beds for inmates that Butler County had available in Hamilton.
“County incarceration is becoming a competitive business, Woodruff said. “We have to look at it, and yes we have to incarcerate at whatever sentences the judges hands down, but then it becomes where do you incarcerate at a rate where the county can afford and if it’s local, great, but we have to look at all options.”