Task force finalizes jail recommendationsWith the year coming to a close, there’s good news at the Douglas County Jail.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
With the year coming to a close, there’s good news at the Douglas County Jail.
“According to our finance director, the jail is on course with less than two weeks in the year, the jail is within budget,” said Andy Lisak, county administrator. The good news is that there is no deficit. But the 219-bed jail which opened in 2003 — once expected to be a revenue generator that would net a return on investment for the county within a few years — remains a big budget item. In fact, county taxpayers are picking up the tab for about $3.4 million of the $5.4 million operation.
That leaves a big question.
“How much should it cost to run a jail for Douglas County?” Lisak asked members of the Douglas County Jail Long-Term Planning Task Force on Tuesday.
For the past year, the group of citizens, government officials and jail personnel has researched that question. They toured the Douglas and St. Louis county jails, talked to staff and service providers and met with representatives from agencies that house prisoners there.
“I think going through this process we’ve learned a lot about the jail,” Lisak said. In the process, he said, the look behind the scenes has affected positive changes both within the jail, on the county board and in the community.
“I have an appreciation now for the fixed costs,” said Jayne Ross, a citizen member of the task force. After going through all the operations, everything from the electricity bill down to the services, she said, “I think we run a fantastic facility. And that’s what the other agencies told us, too.”
Kay Johnson was a county board supervisor when the jail was built; she continues to serve the 16th district. She is also a member of the jail task force.
“Each time I get to go through it I see things that they have tried to improve and I think the staff really tries to do a good job,” Johnson said. “I think the people have to realize even though we’re in a low economy area sometimes your taxes just have to go up to get the services you need and want.”
Staffing at the jail has been reduced by seven positions since 2003, according to Douglas County Sheriff Tom Dalbec. But there is a fixed overhead cost for heat, lights and building maintenance. As the cost of living rises, so do those jail costs. Increasing the fee to house prisoners for other agencies isn’t the solution, some task force members said. A cost increase could send those inmates, and the dollars attached to them, elsewhere.
When it comes right down to it, the sheriff said, the facility belongs to the public.
“The jail isn’t ours,” Dalbec said, pointing at jail staff. Then he gestured to the entire task force. “It’s ours. We just run it.”
The task force finalized a list of recommendations, which will be presented to the Douglas County Board’s Public Safety Committee. They included identifying future trends and best practices, conducting a financial analysis of the jail compared to similar-sized facilities, improving marketing efforts in the community and hiring a consultant to evaluate downsizing the current jail to house only Douglas County inmates. Keeping the facility flexible, however, was a key point.
While the recommendations are non-binding, Lisak said, he hoped the committee would give them serious consideration “as we move forward … making this jail the best it can be.”