Special report: Cost of justice

A Mower County jail guard monitors cells in the women’s wing Thursday morning. Operating costs in the new facility have increased, but many people’s views on the project have remained the same. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Operating expenses for new jail have increased, but many officials still back original decision

Editor’s note: Dave Tollefson, Dick Lang and Ray Tucker voted for the project; David Hillier and Dick Cummings voted against it.

Like many others who opposed the project, Tony Bennett moved on after the completion of the $28-million Jail and Justice Center. But his stance against the project’s costs hasn’t wavered.

“Obviously nobody was more opposed to that project than I was,” Bennett said. “[People] keep waiting for me to change my mind, and I haven’t.”

It’s no surprise to Bennett, who defeated Dick Lang in Commissioner District 4 in 2010 as the project was coming to a close, that the Mower County’s jail operating costs have increased since the new facility opened about 15 months ago.

It’s not a surprise to many local officials, either. But despite the costs, most maintain it was still the right decision.

“Where in the hell would we be if we didn’t have a jail in Mower County,” said Lang, who was one of three commissioners to vote for the project, along with current Commissioner Ray Tucker and Dave Tollefson.

The Jail and Justice Center project, completed in September of 2010, was one of the most hotly debated issues in the county’s history and one of the most expensive.

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge.

Costs

In its first year, the jail’s net operating costs were $2.49 million, according to county documents. That’s up from $1.46 million in 2007, $1.69 million in 2008, $1.68 million in 2009, and $2.31 million in 2010. However, county officials said the jail expenditures don’t paint the full picture, as the county spent at least $100,000 a year through 2010 in the sheriff’s budget to transport inmates boarded at other jails — a figure Sheriff Terese Amazi called a conservative estimate.

In 2012, the jail’s net operating cost is estimated at $2.51 million.

Mower County Jail detention deputy Lonnie Arndt monitors various points of the jail through the main control room Thursday.

Also no surprise to Bennett and many county officials is that most of the increases stem from staffing costs.

“That’s what those of us who opposed it said would happen, but I don’t think that was really a mystery to anybody,” Bennett said.

The jail’s staff increased from about 16 to 31.6, and regular salaries increased from around $530,000 in both 2007 and 2008 and $580,000 in 2009, to $840,000 in 2010 and $1.19 million in 2011. The county’s 2012 budget projects regular jail salaries at $1.24 million.

“One of the most expensive things you can do is hire more people,” Bennett said.

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said the county board was expecting increases in staffing costs.

“We were all aware that the staffing was going to cost a lot more than in the old jail,” said Gabrielson, who was elected after the vote to build the new jail but was on the board during much of the project.

Even early in the discussions, the board knew staffing increases would be a part of a new, larger jail, according to former Commissioner Garry Ellingson.

“It’s going to take staff — we all knew that,” said Ellingson, who lost a re-election bid in District 5 to Tollefson before the vote.

Ellingson supported building the jail, but he favored a site near the airport over downtown. Despite his views, he said the board has been cost conscious.

“I think they’ve done the best they can for efficiency in the new facility,” he added.

Gabrielson said after the previous board voted to build a jail, decisions on staffing levels were out of their hands and set by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Along with the added staff costs come additional benefits for the employees. Since 2008, FICA and PERA benefits have increased from about $94,000 combined to about $196,000 in 2011.

“There’s no way we can control that,” Gabrielson said.

On top of staff costs, Gabrielson said, the county is mandated to pay inmate health and dental costs.

“We have to cover it all,” Gabrielson said. “Why we have to be responsible for that is beyond me.”

Commissioner Mike Ankeny said the board has to pay for everything down to inmates’ socks, underwear and more: “It’s too bad you’ve got to pay for haircuts,” he said.

Gabrielson said the board thoroughly checks bills and budgets in the jail and each of its departments, and that there are no excessive, non-mandated costs in the jail.

“We’re not spending any extra money over there that we don’t absolutely have to,” he said.

Alternatives

To Bennett, increased staffing costs — on top of bonding for the $28-million facility — were a key reason he opposed the project. He saw the cost-efficient alternative to building a new jail as boarding inmates outside the county.

“That was the least expensive option — still is,” Bennett said.

Early in the project, Lang agreed and was a supporter of boarding. But, Lang later changed his mind when he said he took into account all the transportation costs and the safety concerns for deputies transporting inmates.

“The cost was going up, up, up,” he said.

Bennett maintains boarding would have been a cheaper option. However, Amazi said transportation would have become an issue.

A 2003 study by KKE Architects Inc. and Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services Inc. on jailing seemingly supports both sides.

The study estimated boarding as the cheapest option with a cost range of $74.86 to $87.60 a day, compared to six building/remodel options with costs ranging from $80.84 to $99.11 a day.

However, the study highlighted a long list of concerns about boarding. One key concern was the difficulties of managing inmates’ court appearances and the needs of the courts. Along with transportation needs, another key issue was a potential bed shortage.

“Contracting must be considered a short-term option due to this lack of dependability for future contracts,” the study reads. The study went on to urge the board to form a long-term plan for jailing.

Many people thought the county could continue splitting inmates between the old jail and boarding elsewhere. However, this wasn’t a viable option because of projected DOC mandates, according to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

The old jail was built in the 1960s with a capacity of 72 inmates, but as jail standards changed, the DOC reduced the jail’s capacity. Before it closed, the DOC cut the jail’s functional capacity to 32 inmates. DOC officials said they would likely have further reduced the functional capacity to around 20 inmates, which Oscarson said wasn’t cost efficient with a mandate of around 14 jail employees. The only two options were to board or build, according to Oscarson.

“We may not have been as good in communication when we did this as we should have,” he said.

Operations

Ultimately, the board decided building was the best option.

Since the jail opened in December of 2010, Amazi said she has been very pleased with how well it has operated.

“It’s been going very well,” she said.

Unlike the old facility, the new jail has space for recreation and classrooms, where inmates can get their GEDs. Recreation and educational opportunities are required by the DOC, and Oscarson and Amazi said they help keep the inmates occupied and out of trouble.

“The recreation and the programming, those things can all be taken away as behavior management,” Amazi said. “It really gives us good tools to say ‘No, you’re not going to do this until you shape up.’”

But even after more than a year, Amazi said, she and the jail staff are still trying to get completely used to the new facility.

“It’s more fine-tuning things,” Amazi said.

Even though Amazi has described the jail as more secure than the old facility, it hasn’t been 100 percent incident free. A few inmates attempted suicide, and one inmate took a run at a wall and hurt his head.

But, Amazi commended jail staff for how they handled the issues. In fact, three jailers were the employees of the month last May for preventing a dangerous situation when an inmate jumped over a booking counter.

“They don’t stop their crap when they get locked up,” Amazi said.

Moving on

Even after a year at the jail, many still hold true to their original opinions.

Ellingson, who was the longtime chief deputy and jail administrator before serving as a commissioner, still says he believes building by the airport near the town line was the best option.

“I wish I’d have gotten re-elected,” he said, noting the jail would likely have been built near the airport.

Still, Ellingson expressed his support for the board and the project.

“They had a job to do and they did the best they could with the space that was given to them,” Ellingson said.

For Lang, the wave of opposition to the jail project was expected, as that’s typical with any large government project.

“Any time that your taxes are going to be raised to pay for a situation or a jail or anything else, you’re not going to make people happy,” Lang said.

But for Lang, the need was and is still clear: “Mower County needed a jail,” he said.

“If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing,” Lang said. “I think it worked out well for the county.”

Lang, who still owns the Austin bar Bobee Jo’s, said many people have moved on from the controversy that surrounded the project.

“I think now the dust is settled on it,” Lang said.

Bennett contests that many people haven’t forgotten.

“People are still not happy about it,” he said.

But Bennett has moved on. He spoke highly of county staff and how he’s been treated since his election. He said the board has a strong working relationship.

“People have been very gracious working with me,” he said.

Bennett said he has rarely worked with the jail since he has been elected, since construction was completed before he took office, and he hasn’t sat on the finance or buildings and grounds committees.

So while the jail battle may be over, Bennett is moving on with the same goal of saving money.

“What’s done is done, and I lost that argument, and I’m going on trying to trim costs where I can elsewhere,” he said.

— Commissioners Ray Tucker and Jerry Reinartz could not be reached for comment. Former Commissioner David Hillier, who voted against the jail project, declined to comment.

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