New Eagle jail wing closing
EAGLE, Colorado – Eagle County is closing its new multi-million jail wing because there aren’t enough prisoners.
The Eagle County commissioners voted in 2008 to spend $32.8 million to expand and remodel the Justice Center – $24 million in hard costs and the rest in interest, fees and other costs.
The expanded jail holds 120 prisoners, including 40 in the new wing and 16 in the new work release facility. Jail population has been hovering around 58 this year, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
With closing the 40-prisoner new wing, four detentions deputies will lose their jobs.
“If the economy had not failed and had continued to grow at the rate we were growing, we were justified in making room for the increased jail population,” said Sara Fisher, one of the three county commissioners who voted unanimously for the project in 2008. The others were current commissioner Peter Runyon and former commissioner Arn Menconi.
The jail had only 64 prisoners the day the county commissioners cut the ribbon to open it. The old jail, to which they’re retreating, holds 76 prisoners.
When Hoy asked for more jail beds, the county was spending $300,000 a year to house prisoners in other jails and transport them, he said.
“It’s all about the numbers,” Fisher said. “On the face of it, it’s the fiscally responsible thing for the sheriff to do.”
On the other hand, at $300,000 a year, it would take 27 years housing prisoners in other jails and transporting them to equal the $8 million in hard costs spent on the jail expansion. That assumes the jail population did not decline.
The Sheriff’s Office only asked for more jail beds and spent $8 million in hard costs to expand the jail, Hoy said.
As the courts and other agencies got involved, the project mushroomed. More than half the $32.8 million is paying for additional offices for the court staff, new courtrooms, probation offices, and to remodel the District Attorney’s office.
“We were wrong to build it to begin with?” Runyon asked. “Given the information we had at the time, no. We were housing an average of 20 prisoners per day outside the county.”
The Sheriff’s Office will save $300,000 a year by closing the new jail wing, Hoy said. Most of that will come from cutting four detentions positions.
“Will we need it at some point in the future? You betcha,” Runyon said. “After this recession plays out we will continue growing at a sustainable rate. In two years or less we may have to reopen it.”
Hoy said the final decision to close the new jail wing rested with the Sheriff’s Office.
The county commissioners dodged a public vote and Colorado’s TABOR Amendment when they funded the project through a financial gadget called certificates of participation. Instead of a single multi-year debt, it’ll be paid off through two decades of one-year loans, at $1.64 million per year. TABOR prohibits governments taking on multi-year debt without voter approval.
The commissioners at the time insisted that the old jail was not adequate, that the county is required to provide adequate facilities, and that taxpayers would never vote to fund a new jail.
“The judges were breathing down our necks,” Runyon said. “We had the option to refuse and make them write an order forcing us to do it. And they had reasons to write that order. The work release program, for example, did not exist.”
The Sheriff’s Office was called on to cut its budget, like all county departments this year. They came back with $1.5 million in cuts, but were told they needed to find another $500,000.
“When it opened we were looking for ways to cut,” said Sgt. Bill Kaufman, who runs the jail. “We’re downsizing just like everyone else, and that affects everything.”
The Sheriff’s Office had 19 detentions positions last year. In 2011 they’re down to 12.
The four sergeants last year is down to three in 2011.
The work of five control room technicians in the jail will now be done by one.
Three cooks prepared everything last year. Next year one will do it.
“When you cut expenses, it generally comes from personnel,” Kaufman said. “I wish we could cut inmates.”
The Sheriff’s Office departments didn’t overlap much in years past. That has changed, Kaufman said.
“The most valuable people in an organization are those who can do the most, and we looked at the patrol officers,” Kaufman said. “They can do everything from make arrests to serve legal papers and answer phones in the front. They can do everything, and that’s what we’re looking for them to do.”
“We’re in the revenue generating mode,” Kaufman said.
Those 16 work release prisoners pay $50 a day when they’re working, $25 for days they’re not working, and $40 for a weekly drug test.
Prisoners on work release occasionally smoke dope and do cocaine, then get caught, Kaufman said.
They’re looking at jail industries in which inmates provide services to businesses, make clothing and other jobs to generate revenue.
But for now they’ll close off the new open concept section that requires staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Now that we have fewer jail-bound folks, we’re ahead of the game. I don’t think there’s any question that in time we’ll open the new wing again at some point,” Fisher said. “Living the mindset that the future will always be better than the past is not all that realistic.”
Consultants brought back a $50 million proposal for the first iteration of the new jail.
“We said no and sent them back to the drawing board,” Runyon said.
“Jails by definition are a loss. The bond is the cost of borrowing the money to build the facility,” Runyon said.
Support Local Journalism
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User