Mayors Planning Kent Jail Break

July 21, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — It sounded more like a promise than a threat.

Here’s how it goes: If the 19 county commissioners don’t eliminate the per-diem charge on Thursday that five cities pay the county to house their ordinance violators, then six city mayors will encourage their cumulative 350,000 voters to reject the county’s request for a renewal of the corrections and detention millage on Aug. 5. “You can’t pass this millage without the support of the six cities,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell at a recent news conference.

A millage defeat would be a crushing financial blow to the county. Kent is expected to receive $16.5 million from the levy this year, revenue that accounts for 43 percent of the county’s $37 million corrections budget.

“The mayors of six cities stand united in their opposition to the jail millage,” Heartwell said in reference to his peers in Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, Grandville and East Grand Rapids.

The six core-city mayors each called on their respective county commissioners to end what they said is an “unfair and unjust” charge, and they publicly put election-year pressure on their county representatives to do away with the daily room-and-board fee and one-time booking charge the cities pay.

“Who do you support and who do you represent?” asked Kentwood Mayor Richard Root of county commissioners.

County Commissioners Carol Hennessy, Dick Bulkowski and Brandon Dillon have sided with the mayors on this issue, three Democrats who represent Grand Rapids on the county board.

But County Commission Chairman Roger Morgan feels confident that the majority of his board members have made their feelings known and won’t give in this week to the all-or-nothing demand made by the mayors.

“I think their position has been pretty clear in that we voted unanimously to put this issue on the ballot. I think it’s already been answered,” he said.

The mayors feel that because the corrections millage is a countywide levy, their cities shouldn’t have to pay any jail fees, as having to make those payments amounts to a double taxation. Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood and Grandville pay a collective $2.1 million in daily housing fees and arrest-processing charges annually.

The county denies that the charges are a form of double dipping. Morgan said the cities should pay the fees because they decided to use the county’s jail rather than build and fund their own lock-ups.

“We do not even charge the full cost to house an inmate because we give a credit to the cities for the jail millage. Other cities throughout the state operate their own jails. The five cities in Kent County chose to use the county jail and not have their own,” he said, while noting that Grand Rapids closed its jail in 1994 when the Hall of Justice was razed for DeVos Place.

According to the county, it costs $74.97 to house an inmate for one day, and about two-thirds of those offenders have home addresses in the core cities. The cities pay the county $47.80 for each day that one of their arrestees is in the jail, about 64 percent of the county’s daily cost. The cities also pay an arrest-processing, or booking, fee of $20.08 for each offender they deliver to the county lock-up.

In negotiations over the per-diem charge, the mayors said they would agree to a 50 percent reduction that would have lowered their daily fee to $23.90, or to 32 percent of what the county says it costs to house an inmate. The mayors also wanted the booking fee cut in half, and for both of the new charges to take immediate effect.

“This was a major concession on our part,” said Walker Mayor Rob VerHeulen.

The county rejected that offer and proposed a 20 percent reduction in the per-diem fee that would lower the daily charge to $38.24, or 51 percent of what the county said it cost to house an inmate for a day. Morgan said the county’s offer would save the cities $400,000 a year. The county didn’t offer to lower the booking charge and the reduction would only go into effect if the millage passes.

“The latest proposal is in the mayors’ hands and I’m waiting for their response,” said Morgan. “I’ll wait for as long as it takes to get a proposal.”

State law gives the county the authority to charge the fees, and the formula for creating the per-diem charge was agreed upon by the cities and the county in 1998, eight years after voters approved the corrections millage. In 1980, Grand Rapids challenged the county’s right to charge the fees in state court and lost.

In addition to room and board, the county said the daily fee helps to cover staffing at the jail, psychological medical services for inmates, utilities and supply costs, building use and depreciation, some indirect services and other miscellaneous expenses.

“We have an agreement with each of the cities outlining the responsibilities and rate method, which all the cities approved and signed,” said Morgan.

Should the millage not be renewed, County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio has said the county will make cuts to its general fund to make up for the $16.5 million loss of revenue. The general fund pays for most of the county’s services, and funds 45 percent of the corrections budget. General fund cuts could result in fewer human services being offered to needy residents in the core cities. Morgan added that if the millage goes down, the per-diem charges to the cities will go up.

State law doesn’t require the county to house ordinance offenders, those who are arrested for breaking a city law. The county sheriff’s department reported in 2005 that 42 percent of all the persons booked by the core cities, 13,086, were charged with at least one ordinance violation, and those inmates occupied 11 percent of the jail’s total beds that year.

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