Commissioners discuss building a jail for profit

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Marion County could become home to the next pay-to-stay jail for other counties’ prisoners.

The Marion County Commission Monday reversed last week’s discussion on closing the county jail after looking at what other counties earn housing inmates.

The commissioners directed Sheriff Lee Becker to begin looking into the possibilities of building a jail, and said they would use the information as the basis for a supporting study if they decided to go that direction.

Becker said Wilson County is netting $1,200 a day from its jail, and Chase County, where Marion County might have sent its prisoners, averages $40,000 a month.

Commissioner Howard Collett said he could see a jail as a matter of economic development for Marion County.

Becker said, “If we could keep the money here, it would have a trickle-down effect through the whole economy.”

He noted that even the state has been discussing housing more prisoners out to county jails.

Collett said because such a jail would be “an income-producing facility,” it could be financed with bonds, just as the transfer station was.

Commissioner Bob Hein said, “I think we should look into it.”

Commission Chair Leroy Wetta said with the commission “continually with its back against the wall” on budgeting, earning a quarter-million dollars would look much better than spending money to send prisoners away.

Becker and Deputy Gary Klose said that housing prisoners from more urban Johnson County is the main stability factor in the Chase County jail. Finding an urban center committed to sending prisoners here could stabilize such a venture for Marion County too, they said.

Klose said the most difficult phase for the 64-prisoner Chase County facility was the start-up phase, which began with 32 prisoners, then added another “pod.”

He noted that Marion County normally houses from five to 12 inmates a day. Assuming an average six prisoners at $40 a day, Marion County could be paying Chase County $87,600 a year if the jail here were closed, he said.

Becker said he expects Harvey County to cooperate with sharing information with Marion County on how it built its new jail that houses out-of-county prisoners.

Attorney Ed Wheeler suggested that a good place to start might be with the architect of the Harvey County jail.

District Judge Michael Powers, who also listened to the discussion, came to the commissioners on another matter, the interlocal agreement among Marion, Geary, Morris and Dickinson counties forming the 8th Judicial District in regard to the district’s employee insurance covered through administrating Geary County.

Powers said the question also regards a needed reorganization of the district to clarify issues not addressed by the current interlocal agreement such as lines of authority, rights to hire and fire, and disciplinary actions.

A Geary County commissioner called during the meeting to ask his Marion counterparts to immediately approve a new insurance package with Geary County as the carrier, and Marion County obligated for a 15 percent cost-share, prorated according to case load.

The Marion County commissioners said they were reluctant to pay a high price for insurance based on Geary’s history without further discussion. They appointed Collett to meet with commissioners of other counties and judicial personnel to resolve the issue.

Hein said, “I think we need to get this meeting set up before we do anything more.”

Wetta said insurance costs appeared to be “extraordinary.”

County Clerk Carol Maggard said she had looked at charges for liability and workman’s compensation with a fear that higher charges for health insurance could still be coming.

Budget discussion

Most of the meeting was spent with Scot Loyd, budget and audit consultant, on final development of the 2005 budget.

Loyd said given increased valuation, it was going to be “pretty easy” for him to move budget items without a mill levy increase.

The commissioners told him they favored giving employees a 2 percent pay increase.

They discussed, with Loyd, setting up the sheriff’s budget as a separate fund so it would have greater accountability to the public instead of being allowed to draw from the general fund for overruns.

Many potential savings were discussed, such as the possibility of budgeting for two instead of three $62,000 each “generic bridges”- those constructed by road and bridge from steel purchased, and kept on hand annually.

The commissioners looked at scratching some capital outlay funds from budget to avoid a mentality in departments of “if it’s there, I have to spend it.”

They expected greater expenses to come from the county attorney with possible reopening of a murder case for DNA testing, and a probability of charges to come on recent U.S. Highway 50 fatality accidents.

Communications and Emergency Management Director Michelle Abbot-Becker told commissioners the bottom line of her budget would stay the same as last year with increased purchases of equipment paid for through Homeland Security grants.

She said her 911 funds remain a separate line item in the budget with departments statewide waiting to see how distribution of new funds from cellular phone taxes is done.

Abbot-Becker clarified for the commissioners that at this point, the Kansas Trauma Plan is a request to counties-instead of an unfunded mandate-to have two dispatchers on 911 duty so that one can be free to give medical directions to callers until emergency medical personnel arrive with an ambulance.

To provide the service as contemplated, the plan would require Marion County tohave four new jailers to free dispatchers from sharing in jail watch.

A fuller report of this meeting will appear in this week’s Free Press Extra.

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