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Wanted: Inmates for county jail

The Hubbard County Correctional Center has the capacity to hold 116 inmates, but averages 40 to 60 per month due to several factors. Photo by Sarah Smith, Park Rapids Enterprise.

By Sarah Smith

Park Rapids Enterprise

The tourism brochure might read: Rustic bed and breakfast in scenic Park Rapids for rent to large groups or individuals. Guests must be unable to post bail; must like wearing orange.

This is the ad Hubbard County commissioners might like to see posted throughout the state, saturated on Web sites, pasted on billboards.

As commissioners grapple with shrinking state and local revenues, they are feeling the burden of the financial albatross that is the Hubbard County Correctional Center.

It's not a moneymaker.

"The projected revenue, I think, was considerably higher than what we actually got," said county coordinator Jack Paul.

"The public got the impression the jail was making us money," Hubbard County commissioner Greg Larson said. Staffing costs rose exponentially. "We had to add permanent people no matter how many inmates we have."

"We've got to market that thing," board chair Lyle Robinson said during a recent work session to balance the county's budget.

But it's not for lack of trying. Jail administrator Sherri Klasen, short of posting such an ad above, has cast a wide net in search of inmates. She's met with mixed success.

She took many inmates from Becker County to free that jail up for We Fest arrests last summer.

She offered to take Twin Cities inmates during the Republican convention, but was outbid by Stillwater, which was a closer destination.

"I have tried, basically through phone communications," Klasen said about the marketing efforts. "I've also sent out teletypes to other facilities in Minnesota and I have been in contact with the Marshal's service and with the state."

She said federal prisoners seemed the most lucrative way for Hubbard County to fill the vacant cots, but like all government agencies, she's not sure if the U.S. Marshal's Service is cash-strapped.

"Maybe they don't have funding to house out or they're piling them up thicker," she said. She has not heard back from the feds, although she said they are interested in the fact that Hubbard County has ample room for female inmates.

And the idea of marketing the jail is a difficult one, especially when neighboring counties have also built new, larger correctional centers and don't need to ship inmates here.

In 2008 the jail budgeted receiving $250,000 in revenues. But the facility only collected $58,900. With other sources of funding, the jail still fell short of expectations.

"That was only 58 percent of their revenues," Robinson said of the monies collected.

For 2009 the correctional center has estimated $200,000 in revenues.

Built at a cost of nearly $10 million, the jail, which hosted its open house in March 2006, has never fulfilled financial projections or expectations. At full occupancy, it's designed to hold 116 inmates. Its occupancy rate hovers between 40 to 60 inmates typically.

This year the county will pay $638,087.50 in principal and interest on the jail bonds. The amount varies annually. The bonds run until 2025. The correctional center's 2008 budget was $1,677,312. The facility wants an additional $200,000 for 2009 but won't get it. It was one of several departments asked to make do with last year's budget.

"We were going to get a whole bunch of people from all sorts of counties," Paul said. "But Beltrami added 65 beds to their jail; Cass got a million-dollar deal to haul their extra folks to Crow Wing so who are you gonna pick on but the little guys - Wadena County, who's gonna give us four or six people a month."

It's actually more than that, according to Klasen's accounting.

But she says jail populations are down all over the state. At a recent jail administrators conference she learned that a neighboring county, "which normally has a very high volume of inmates they're housing for other facilities, their numbers are way down, even more than what we are," she said. "So I think we're doing pretty good in that we're bringing in some revenue."

Three separate cell blocks are operated presently: A Block, which can house up to 32 female inmates; B Block, which houses an equivalent number or more of minimum security and work release prisoners, and the C Block, which houses the maximum security or high-medium classes of inmates.

That cellblock has a full-time "jail post" to watch over inmates that need more scrutiny and constant supervision, Klasen said. There could be problems intermingling the two classes of male inmates just to save money.

And it would only incrementally bring meal costs down feeding more inmates, and likewise only increase laundry costs by a small margin to fill the house. But filling the jail would entail adding more staff, including an assistant jail administrator, which county commissioners have balked at doing.

"It would be a minimal increase to double our capacity," Klasen said of the manpower needs.

"It's hard to do an actual analysis of costs," Klasen said. "At the per diems we charge I don't think we'd go into the hole."

Jail populations "unfortunately or fortunately, depend on the crime trends," Klasen said. "We see a lot of volume coming through here, but for some reason, because of the way bail is now structured," inmate stays have been shortened.

Klasen said in the past bail was a set amount. Period. Now judges are setting much lower amounts with conditions.

"If there's a $25,000 bail unconditional and $5,000 with conditions in a lot of cases they can certainly make the lower amount," she said. That means potential overnight stays at the jail can be minimized.

Klasen said there are fixed costs regardless of the number of inmates being housed. "The lights have to be on whether you have two inmates or 100 inmates," she said.

"Our biggest surprise on that jail wasn't the cost of the whole building, it was the staffing," Paul said. "We were told we could probably get by with eight but that changed pretty quickly to 12," he said.

The jail now has 20 staff, in part due to an inspection in 2007. The U.S. Department of Corrections found delinquencies that could only be cured by adding personnel. More jailers were hired last summer.

"It's the $6 million question," Klasen said of the downturn in prison populations. "What is the change and why are the numbers down in the facilities because I can't say that crime is necessarily down."