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Officials consider options for more cost-effective Douglas County Jail

From jail contracts to size of the jail, Douglas County's Public Safety Committee is exploring ways to reduce the tax burden for jail operations.

Government Center in Superior.jpg
Government Center in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
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SUPERIOR — When Douglas County built a 212-bed jail in the early 2000s, officials had a goal: Let the cost of housing inmates be covered by revenue generated by boarding inmates for out-of-county law enforcement agencies.

That goal was never realized. Even in 2021, when the jail earned a little more than $1.6 million for housing, it was only an offset for the $5.7 million in expenditures that year.

Now Douglas County officials are taking a hard look at what it costs to operate the jail and house inmates as they look to reduce the burden on taxpayers.
Taxpayers will foot the bill for $4.4 million of the jail's projected $5.9 million budget in 2023.

At its meeting Thursday, Oct. 27, the Douglas County Public Safety Committee started gathering information to determine what action it can take to reduce the cost of the jail or enhance revenues to support the operation.

"According to the audit, the cost of housing an inmate per day is $108,” said Supervisor Rosemary Lear.

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“That depends on how many inmates we have in the jail at anyone time,” said Capt. Tyler Edwards, jail administrator. “… If you took away all the inmates that are paying us to be here, that number would be a lot higher than $108. We would never be able to collect $108 per day from anyone.”

While charges for housing inmates for other agencies vary based on contract, the average cost is about $50 per person per day, Edwards said.

On an average day, the jail houses about 130 inmates in what is now rated as a 234-bed facility, Edwards said. The number still remains lower than the pre-pandemic average of 180 per day, 150 of whom live in Douglas County.

“I have to go by a number that people will pay,” Edwards said, adding that some jails only get $35 per inmate per day.

Edwards said he has been working to bump up the price the county can charge as he reviews the contracts on a three-year cycle.

When it comes to St. Louis County in Minnesota, county board Chair Mark Liebaert said Douglas County has only charged $46 per inmate for at least the last five years. Edwards, who has served as jail administrator for less than three years, said he is waiting to renegotiate that contract until the new sheriff takes office in January 2023.

Bill Whiteside, the county’s finance director, said his department is working with the jail to determine the price point where the jail would break even.

“At a certain point, at a certain bill rate, that levy can be reduced,” Whiteside said. “… Obviously, the higher price negotiated would be better.”

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In addition to looking into contracts to raise revenue from sources outside of Douglas County, the committee learned more about what it would take to do a feasibility study to build a smaller jail.

Edwards said a feasibility study could cost the county about $35,000 and would take about 120 days to review the county jail and whether it makes sense to build a new jail.

Lear asked if counties building new jails anticipated savings by building new.

Edwards said jails being built now are being built to operate with fewer people.

“Right now, we’re forced to have X amount of officers because have five, four operating, floors,” Edwards said. He said if there are inmates on the floor, there has to be a jailer there, too.

“Especially, because you’ve had a problem keeping staff, it might make sense to try to reduce,” Lear said.

Edwards said he doesn’t disagree, but there is the cost for building a new jail, which ranges from $40 million to $70 million.

The current jail cost about $25 million of the $44 million Government Center project that was paid off earlier this year.

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The committee took no action Thursday, but will further review its options.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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