Kent County Joining Two Others On Jail Study

March 3, 2008
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A study is under way to determine if it would be a good idea for Kent County to enter into an agreement with two other county correctional systems for a regional jail.

Should Kent ultimately go forward completely with Allegan and Kalamazoo counties on the project, it would result in the first regional correctional system and facility in the state.

Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma said the concept of a regional jail is all about taking a business approach to the correctional system to find economies of scale. That is something the department needs to do, as the county jail is at full capacity most days.

“With the way the economy is, there is a definite need for us to figure out how we are going to sustain all the expenses. The cost of doing any business continues to rise, and we have to protect against the likelihood the money to supplant those expenses is not going to be there,” said Wayman Britt, assistant county administrator.

“We know that, potentially, revenue sharing may go away for us. As you can see what is happening with property taxes these days with all the foreclosures and so forth going on, it is a big resource for the county to fund our operations. If you look at what’s happening, there is a perfect storm on the horizon for most businesses and government entities,” he said.

County commissioners awarded the study to CRS Inc., a nonprofit consultant based in Gettysburg, Penn. The research effort carries a price tag of $95,360, a cost the three counties will split. So each county, including Kent, is spending $31,786 on the study. But a $5,000 grant Kent received from the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority reduced the county’s actual cash payout to $26,787.

“We have to be smart about how we run our business and sustain our operation. So we think a regional jail could be one of those opportunities to leverage resources and minimize our expenses as a result of the benefits from such a collaboration,” said Britt.

County officials hope the study tells them what benefits a regional jail could provide. Britt and Stelma both pointed out that regional facilities are working well in other parts of the nation, in states like Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and the Carolinas.

But whether one would offer the same cost savings in Michigan has to be determined. The study will also let the counties know if the state constitution even allows them to form a regional system.

If they can go forward with the concept, though, the next issue that has to be determined is how it will be jointly operated, because each county’s correctional system differs a bit in the manner it handles criminal justice issues.

“We want to see what those strengths are and how we could make a compelling case to each one of the counties’ jurisdictions, if there is a benefit for us to work together,” said Britt.

CRS Inc. began the study a few weeks ago by researching the country’s existing regional jails to nail down the benefits and barriers those systems gained and had to face. Key findings for the counties will include how the costs were distributed, whether involvement with a private-sector partner paid off for any of those systems, and if a separate governing body needed to be created to oversee daily operations.

Other key findings will include how big a work force will be needed to staff a regional jail, what it will cost to build one, where it should be located, and what funding sources are available to the counties to build and staff one. Britt hopes to have a final report in June.

Britt said one potential outcome is that a regional jail system could emerge from the study but not include a regional lockup facility.

“How can we leverage the strengths of each other and maximize on that? We do each have particular programs and services within our own jails that perhaps could be enhanced and without a whole lot of expense,” said Britt.

Britt said two of the county’s stronger programs are the work-release and mental-health programs. Maybe the other counties’ correctional systems could benefit from those, and maybe Kent could gain some new insights and practices from the Allegan and Kalamazoo systems.

“So we’re looking at all of that. At the end of the day, does it make sense to build something, or does it simply mean initially we take a look at how we can leverage these other strengths?” he said.

The 2008 budget for the correctional facility is $36.9 million, up from $33.7 million just two years ago. About $16 million of that amount this year will come from the corrections millage, but that levy will expire next year if county voters don’t renew it.

Another revenue source for the jail is the per-diem fees the county charges Grandville, Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming to house inmates those cities arrest. The current daily housing fee is $47.80, with a one-time arrest charge of $20.08.

But Commission Chairman Roger Morgan has repeatedly said those fees don’t cover the county’s cost to incarcerate and house these individuals. According to the county, the average daily inmate population at the jail is 1,287.

“We see this (study) as a mid- to-longer-term solution to the growth needs. With the sentencing guidelines potentially changing the governance of and downsizing the state’s correctional facilities, it would appear likely that we’ll probably get more of those offenders back in the local communities,” said Britt.

“And it will drain our capacity. It will overburden us, potentially. We think it might do that.” LQX

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