By Tom Larson
The Stevens County's building advisory committee reviewed jail budget figures with one sheriff and received words of caution from a retired sheriff and a Traverse County commissioner at its meeting Monday.
The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee compared operational budgets for the planned jail with Stevens County Sheriff Randy Willis, and also heard from Traverse County Commissioner Jerry Deal and Neil Long, former sheriff of Roberts County in South Dakota, about their experiences with jails.
The advisory committee has been meeting weekly since March to review the county's $15 million building and renovation project, which was approved last summer.
The project includes construction of a 20-cell jail, a new law enforcement center and renovation of the courthouse. The county board voted earlier this month to also have its architect develop optional plans and cost estimates for projects which either subtract the jail portion, or leave out the jail and LEC. The county board is expected to review those plans next week.
The Stevens County Taxpayers Committee, which has three members on the advisory panel, also announced it is sponsoring a town meeting at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 7, at the Morris Area Concert Hall. Panel member Jerry Lesmeister said the town meeting is a forum to update residents who have not attended the advisory committee meetings about its work to date.
On Monday, Willis presented his projected operating jail budget for its first year. He compared it with a projected budget the taxpayers committee presented in a recent newspaper advertisement.
Willis' estimates were higher for some revenue and expenditure items and lower for others. The comparisons differed dramatically for several expenditures, such as depreciation, maintenance, and other expenses related to operations such as garbage, water and sewer, heating and cooling and electrical. Willis said some of the expenses the taxpayers group added in were already being incurred by the county, and that increased efficiencies in the new building would offset increases the group anticipates.
To review the operating budget comparisons, and Willis' response to questions raised by the taxpayers committee in an April 25 opinion piece, visit the Sun Tribune Web site at the address www.morrissuntribune.com, or the Stevens County Web site at the address www.co.stevens.mn.us.
In terms of depreciation, the taxpayers group estimated a figure of $48,000, which Willis said wouldn't be a valid expenditure unless the county put that amount into an account each year.
The comparison differed by more than $90,000 per year. Willis' net total was $54,420 while the taxpayers' estimated a net of $185,892.
Members of the advisory panel said they disagreed with some items that Willis had stated would not result in increased costs for the county if it began operating a jail, such as no costs for maintenance. While Willis said his projection was for the first year of operation, panel member Jack Lampert said he believes utility costs will be higher, and that maintenance costs would be a concern as the facility ages.
Panel member Neal Hofland also noted that neither Willis' nor the taxpayers committee's projected budgets included costs for workers compensation.
"That could be substantial," Hofland said.
Panel member Jeanne Ennen noted that Renville County officials reported during a committee visit there that its jail, which opened last fall, was not housing a great number of out-of-county prisoners and she asked Willis where Stevens County's jail would get its out-of-state inmates. Willis said he expected Pope County, which also does not have a jail, would send a majority of its prisoners to Morris. Willis read an email he received from Pope County Sheriff Tom Larson, who stated that he wouldn't make any firm decisions about sending prisoners to Stevens County until it had a facility built and he could assess costs, programs and other factors. Larson did note in his email that he appreciates the relationship his office has with Stevens County's.
"I will say that I would not be opposed to doing business with Stevens County and would if it makes sense for my office," Larson said in his email.
Deal, who has been on the Traverse County board for almost 2-1/2 years, said the county's four-cell jail cost $2.4 million, and that debt service is about $200,000 per year for 20 years, plus interest. The county sheriff's budget was $542,950 in 2006 and that it had risen to $891,000 in 2008 and a projected $1.12 million for 2009. He noted, however, that about $130,000 of the budget is for providing law enforcement for the City of Browns Valley, which no longer has a police department.
In 2008, the department's net loss was more than $128,000. The department's staffing increased from seven full-time and two part-time to 17 total employees.
On a few occasions, Deal pointed out the difference in county populations, with Traverse at about 3,700 and Stevens County just under 10,000. He also noted that a large majority of the jail's prisoners come from out of county. For example, in January 2009, the Traverse jail averaged 2.23 in-county prisoners and 3.81 out-of-county inmates. In that month, nine Stevens County prisoners were held in Traverse's jail. In all, 1.11 of the prisoners are in-county and 8.21 are out-of-county, Deal said.
The jail was conceived, he said, because the county wanted to save its annual $60,000 expenditure on transporting and housing prisoners in other county jails, Deal said.
"They said we couldn't part with the $60,000 a year and didn't want to have deputies on the road," Deal said. "I think if we did it over, I think we'd have a different attitude."
Deal said Traverse and Stevens already collaborate on a joint powers board for public health, and a similar arrangement might be considered for jail needs.
Long said he spent 29 years of his law enforcement career around jail operations before retiring in 2003. He was not sheriff when the Roberts County jail was expanded from 32 beds to 72 beds, but said he didn't believe adequate planning went into the process.
"I'm glad you're doing what you're doing here (with the advisory panel) because hopefully you won't end up in the situation we're in in Sisseton," Long said.
Roberts County didn't have a solid prisoner needs study completed and over-built for its needs, Long said.
"I wasn't against adding on to the existing facility," he said.
Utility costs are higher than the county budgeted for, taxes have increased and workers compensation costs are higher, as well, Long said.
Compounding the problems, Long said, are tribal plans to build a new jail.