Empty cells, empty coffers

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County jail lost $300,000 over 18 months due to fewer state prisoners

By Stephen Lega

This December will mark the seventh year that the Marion County Detention Center has operated without any funds from the county budget.

Marion County Jailer Barry Brady wants the jail to remain self-sufficient, but unless the detention center has more inmates to fill its beds, he doesn't know how much longer the jail will remain in the black.

"Empty beds are lost revenue," Brady said.

And the county has had more empty beds than it would like during the past two years.

Before 2009, the detention center was at or near its capacity of 297 inmates almost all the time, according to Brady.

In 2009, the Marion County Detention Center averaged 12.03 empty beds per day, and during the first six months of 2010, the jail averaged 29.58 empty beds. All those empty beds added up to more than $306,000 in lost revenue during that 18 months.

The Marion County Detention Center had nearly $3.3 million in revenue and nearly $3.59 million in expenses during the 2009-10 fiscal year. So far, the jail has been able to make up the lost revenue with reserves it has accumulated in prior years, but Brady knows that's not something the jail can do forever.

Since 2008, the jail has seen a decline in its carryover at the end of the fiscal year. At the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year, the carryover was more than $424,000. In 2008-09, the carryover was more than $263,000, and at the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year, the carryover was around $198,000.

A change in Department of Correciton's budget language may help the Marion County Detention Center and other jails around the state, however.

The state has allowed Class D felons who were convicted of non-violent and non-sexual offenses and who received sentences of five years or less to serve their time in county jails. A revision in the DOC budget language reads that non-violent, non-sexual offenders convicted of Class D felonies and who have less than five years remaining on their sentences can be housed in county jails, according to Todd Henson, the DOC public information officer.

And transferring more prisoners to county jails could provide a cost savings opportunity for the DOC.

The state spends an average of $59.49 per day to house inmates in its own facilities. The daily cost to house inmates at state facilities ranges from a low of $37.88 per day at the Bell County Forestry Camp to a high of $72.38 at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Henson explained that the reformatory houses most of the state's inmates with long-term medical issues.

In contrast, the state pays $31.34 per day for each state prisoner housed in county jails.

Marion County Judge/Executive John G. Mattingly sees the revised DOC budget language as a reason to house more prisoners locally.

"If it really does cost the state $59 per day to do that and we can do it for half that, then it just makes fiscal sense," he said.

Brady also sees the change in the DOC's budget language as a potential win-win for the state and the county. While the state saves on expenses, the county jails will benefit from the additional state revenue.

To date, Marion County has received nine state prisoners (all with six months or less remaining in their sentences) as a result of the new budget language, but Brady hopes this will lead to more state prisoners coming to the detention center. He added that county officials are scheduled to meet with state corrections officials in early December to discuss the new state prisoners, he said.

According to Brady, the Marion County Detention Center has not had any problems as a result of the new prisoners.

Nevertheless, the county is prepared even if Brady has to ask the fiscal court for additional funds, Judge Mattingly said that the county had a $1.9 million carryover at the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year, and he said Brady's financial management of the jail has played a big part in the county's ability to build its reserves.

Mattingly added that the county has included $125,000 in its budget for transfers to the jail, but in recent years, it has just rolled that money over from year to year since it hasn't been needed.

Marion County did lose some prisoners when Taylor County opened its own jail, but the county was able to replace that revenue as a result of contracts with the U.S. Marshals and Fort Knox. The detention center is also preparing to complete American Corrections Association accreditation in 2011. Brady said if the Marion County jail is accredited, then it will be the first county jail in the state to do so.

Mattingly said those are example of Brady's efforts to market the jail, all of which have helped it remain self-sustaining for the past seven years and, hopefully, longer.

"We're just very fortunate we have a jailer who is far-sighted to try to keep from being a burden on the county," Mattingly said.