The Jail Dynamic Has Changed

August 8, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Now that voters renewed the corrections and detention millage last week, the year-long negotiations over a per-diem jail housing fee between the mayors of five cities in the county and KentCounty officials will start again, but this time from scratch and with the ball firmly in the county's court.

"The dynamics have changed," said Kent County Commission Chairman Roger Morgan.

Morgan told the Business Journal last week that he plans to invite the mayors back to the bargaining table soon, and he said the first item for discussion is the capture of the county's corrections millage by the cities' tax-increment financing authorities, such as their downtown development authorities. Morgan wants that capture to stop.

"They have been capturing that millage year after year after year. They're talking about how unfair the per-diems are for us to make up the money it costs us to operate this jail and, at the same time, they take money from our budget to put it in their DDAs that are flush with cash," he said.

Morgan also said he was in the process of totaling how many correctional dollars the cities' TIFAs have captured since the millage was first approved in 1990, and that he plans to make that number public.

"I would love to reduce the per-diem dollar-for-dollar on the money we get back (from the corrections capture). I've laid this out for them and they really don't like this," he said

"But it doesn't make any sense to me that their DDAs are capturing a dedicated and voter-approved millage. I don't think when people vote for a detention millage that they would actually care for the cities to capture that money."

The county said it costs $74.97 a day to house an inmate. Morgan had offered the mayors a 20 percent reduction in the current $47.80 daily fee the cities pay to have their ordinance offenders held in the county jail. The mayors said they wanted the per-diem cut in half and then eliminated eventually. A recent discussion focused on the county cutting the fee by 25 percent this year and another 25 percent when and if the state restores full revenue-sharing payments to the county, which is slated for 2011.

Those two cuts would give the mayors the 50 percent reduction they want, but the second 25 percent decrease didn't sit well with the county.

"That was the deal breaker. I was trying to meet them halfway, as far as their 50 percent," said Morgan. "My position has always been 20 percent, and if I had to go to 25, I'd go to 25."

But Morgan said the county's 20 percent reduction is only on the table now if the mayors agree to stop capturing the corrections millage. If the county isn't satisfied with negotiations, the senior services millage could also be on the table because local DDAs capture a portion of that dedicated levy, too.

"I believe in DDAs. But they're already capturing our 5.2 operating mills, then they capture the senior millage, then they capture the detention millage. So what is that, after it's all done — over 6 mills? But I'm willing to take dollar-for-dollar the amount they capture from their DDAs to give relief to their per diem," he said.

By 54 to 46 percent, voters approved a 20-year renewal of the .7893 mill that should provide the county with roughly $17 million each year through 2029. The millage revenue makes up 43 percent of the jail's annual budget, which is just under $37 million this year.

"I'm thinking that the voters really understand our corrections facility and they saw through some of the mayors' posturing. And they also possibly believe, like I do, that good policy discussions are not best achieved through public relations," said Morgan, who won the Republican primary by collecting 70 percent of the vote in the county's Third District last week.

Morgan, who wanted to keep the negotiating process out of the headlines, pointed to the mayors as the ones who took the talks public with a July press conference on CalderPlaza

"This isn't a mandate to spend more money. It's a renewal, and we didn't ask for more to spend more. We asked to renew the funds that were tight already — that were already tight to the budget."    

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