State Fire Marshal report creates turmoil over county jail

Marion County officials suspect that someone may have initiated a plan to try to force Marion County to build a new jail.

The Marion County Commission met in special session Thursday, Aug. 5, with Sheriff Robert Craft, County Attorney Susan Robson and jail committee members to consider what to do about a State Fire Marshal?s Office inspection report that would limit the current county jail to four prisoners at a time.

Craft was given 10 days to offer a plan to the SFMO. If the county were forced into a noncompliance situation that would require transportation of prisoners to other counties, he said, it could require an estimated $377,900 from the county budget in the first year.

As a first step, Robson and County Consulting Attorney Jonathan Small will be contacting the attorney for the SFMO to seek some answers and negotiating room.

Robson said there may be something a little too convenient about the SFMO inspection and requirements coming right on the heels of an Attorney General?s Office letter that offered a neutral opinion on whether the county could finance a jail using a $10 a month assessment per county taxing unit.

The AGO letter said there is no precedent or statute that would prevent the county from using this type of financing.

But, Robson said, from the tone of AGO correspondence on the matter, where the office first questioned the constitutionality of such an assessment, she might consider the entire tenor of the communication a warning that implementing such an assessment could lead to a lawsuit.

The commissioners seemed to feel that such a series of moves to find financing could force the county to rely on traditional taxation, such as sales tax or property mill levy.

The jail committee will meet at 7 p.m. Aug. 25 in as yet an undetermined location.

Committee Member Don Kraus, only partly tongue in cheek, suggested that since it had taken the AGO 380 days to get back to the county with its opinions, perhaps the county should be allowed 380 days also to come up with its solutions.

Committee members noted that a year ago, they were ready with plans to build a jail and have bond issuance question put on the ballot. Now, the state?s delay makes it impossible for the county to put a question on the November ballot.

The SFMO inspection came as the result of a complaint concerning the lack of safety because of crowding at the jail, but Craft said the instigator of the complaint was not revealed. He will be asking SFMO who initiated the complaint, he said.

The SFMO said national safety standards require 120 square feet per prisoner.

Craft and committee members said national jail standards require only 55 square feet per prisoner, and they doubted there is single prison facility in Kansas that does much any better than the 55, even in counties with new jails.

Craft said equipment such as sprinklers and observation cameras already are in place in the jail to ensure prisoner safety.

He said the jail sometimes has served up to 19 prisoners, with separation into south female cells and north male cells when required.

He said the county?s two jailers could be turned into transport drivers for prisoners if the county is required to take them elsewhere, but that would also require that a deputy be taken off the road to fill in for them.

Marion County, Craft said, would be required to return prisoners for court appearances, and take them for required medical and dental visits even if they are in another county.

Craft said he has made calls about availability in other counties. Chase County is full, Butler County is full, but would try to work in two prisoners to help. Harvey County is full, Sumner County could take five, and Pratt County could take all prisoners.

Driving to Pratt County would be 120 miles one way, with prisoner-care charges of $40 to $45 a day. He thinks rather than hauling a maximum of two prisoners per car the way the county does now, he would have to get transport vans.

Commission Chairman Randy Dallke said this places a terrible burden on the commission with the county budget set for completion next week.

County Clerk Carol Maggard advised that with the inability to set a special budget line for the jail, any excess funds probably would have to come from the county general fund, thereby potentially create a financial problem that would be a difficult to maintain.

Commissioner Dan Holub said the commissioners must make some decisions Monday regarding how financing might be done while meeting with budget consultant Scot Loyd.

Commissioner Bob Hein said he hoped the state appeals board would overturn a tax exemption for TransCanada Keystone Pipeline because that would give the county the option of pursuing building the jail without complications.

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