Jail Fees Impacting Corrections Millage

July 28, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Regardless of who wins the per-diem jail fee fight, Kent County will lose revenue. It’s just a matter of how much revenue.

If the county agrees to a proposal from the mayors of Grand Rapids, Grandville, Walker, Wyoming and Kentwood to reduce the charge by 50 percent, the county will lose about $1 million annually to house the ordinance offenders coming from those cities.

If the mayors agree to the 20 percent reduction proposed by the county, the county loses about $400,000 annually to house the ordinance offenders coming from those cities.

The five cities collectively pay the county roughly $2.1 million yearly to lock up violators of city laws because the cities don’t have jails. The city of Flint closed its jail this month to cut expenses from its general budget. Flint, which has a population comparable to Grand Rapids, spent $1.2 million last year to operate its jail.

The per-diem revenue goes into the county’s corrections budget, which is just under $37 million this year. Another $18 million comes from the county’s general fund and $16 million comes from the corrections and detention millage, which is up for renewal next week.

It’s that latter figure that has county officials most concerned because the mayors have said they will lead a campaign against next week’s millage if the county doesn’t cut the per-diem fee in half or eliminate it all together.

“If that doesn’t pass, there will be a hole in this thing the size of a Mac truck,” said County Vice Chairman Richard Vander Molen of a millage defeat for the corrections budget.

The mayors’ argument revolves around the millage. They say because their residents pay the countywide tax the per-diem fee amounts to double dipping on the county’s part.

“The question is clearly about fairness. Is it fair? The answer I clearly hold is, we’re not being treated fairly,” said Kentwood Mayor Richard Root.

County officials disagree. They said state law requires the county to house violators of state laws and be financially responsible for those offenders. Those violators are tried in Circuit Court and, if convicted, the county gets to keep the fees and fines assessed by the court. The same scenario holds true for the 63rd District Court, where non-state court fees remain with the county from arrests made in cities and townships within the court’s district.

But the county said it doesn’t collect fines or fees from violations of, say, Grand Rapids laws because offenders are tried in the 61st District Court, which is a city-operated court.

“As a result, any fines or (non-state) fees collected by the court from that person remain with the city. Therefore, we charge the city the per diem. It is not double dipping because their county tax dollars only go to pay for the housing of state law violators, not ordinance violators,” said County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio.

Delabbio added that the county doesn’t charge the cities a daily fee to house offenders they bring to the jail who are accused of violating a state law.

“That would be double dipping,” he said.

The mayors also argued that the county rushed the millage renewal proposal to the Aug. 5 ballot as a way to avoid or stifle negotiations on the per-diem charge. Voters approved the .7893 mill in 1990; the levy runs through next year. The mayors felt the county could have waited until next year to put the renewal before voters.

“The county chose to rush this proposal to the ballot without a consideration for the cities,” said Wyoming Mayor Carol Sheets.

Not so, said the county. Delabbio said the proposal is on next week’s ballot because the county wants to renovate two older portions of the jail — work that won’t be completed until December 2011.

Pushing back the renewal’s ballot date, he said, would only delay work at the facility

In addition, putting the proposal on the August ballot doesn’t cost the county any money because it’s a general primary election with a host of candidates running for various federal, state and local seats. But if the county waited until next year, County Clerk Mary Hollinrake said it would cost the county $250,000 for a spot on a special election ballot.

“There is no additional cost to the county to place this on the August ballot,” Delabbio said.

“The additional costs come in if we were to place this on a non-primary or non-general countywide ballot, such as a February or May school election or a special election.”

County officials have said losing the millage revenue would result in $16 million worth of cuts to the general fund to make up for the loss and to maintain the corrections budget at its current funding level.

County Chairman Roger Morgan said the 20 percent reduction offer to the cities for jail per-diem fees is only good if the millage passes. If it doesn’t get renewed, he said the county could raise the daily charges or the cities could build their own facilities to house the ordinance offenders. Morgan said the sheriff could also legally refuse to accept those violators.

Root said county commissioners could have changed the mayors’ minds to support the millage had they done something last week about the per-diem fee that they see as an unjust charge. But a majority of commissioners seemed content to keep the fees in place at the current amount.

The county said it costs $74.97 to house an inmate for a day and charges the cities $47.80 per day for ordinance offenders.

“We have been happy to let the cities benefit from the ‘economies of scale’ and reduce the amount of costs associated with housing ordinance violators. Similarly, they have not had to build and operate their own lock-ups,” said Delabbio.

The mayors want that charge reduced to $23.90, while the county has offered to lower it to $38.24. The mayors also want the $20 booking fee erased, but Morgan said the county won’t eliminate that one-time charge.

“I strongly suggest that both parties return to the table immediately,” said Grandville Mayor Jim Buck. “Let’s not let the spirit of collaboration disappear over this issue.”

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