Moffat County's jail struggles to make money

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Lt. Dean Herndon never thought he'd be managing a jail to generate revenue.

Nevertheless, the manager of the Moffat County Jail is working to develop contracts to house other jurisdictions' prisoners in the hopes of helping to pay for the jail.

He doesn't believe his efforts will ever actually bring in enough revenue to fund the jail. But coupled with taxes, the county may someday stop losing money on the jail.

"We'll never be able to house enough prisoners to go into the black," Herndon said.

The county has contracts to house prisoners from Department of Corrections, Immigration and Naturalization Services, and Carbon and Sweetwater Counties in Wyoming, and a contract with the city of Sweetwater is waiting for Sweetwater City Council's approval. The contracts pay the county $45 to $58 per day, plus $15 booking fees for prisoners from the Wyoming counties.

Those contracts have brought $108,245 into the county so far this year, and Sweetwater County still owes Moffat County $6,015. But even with that revenue, $300,000 will have to come out of the county general fund, on top of what was budgeted, to pay for jail debt, Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said.

As long as the general fund has to subsidize the jail fund, it will be difficult for the county's financial situation to improve, Raftopoulos has said.

But no one expected for contract revenues to pay for the jail, she said. The hope is that when combined with sales and property tax and money budgeted from the general fund, the jail would break even or maybe make a small amount of money, which would be put in a reserve for the jail.

A money-making jail

But at the Park County Jail in central Colorado, jail administration has found a way to make their facility revenue generating.

Every month, Capt. Monte Gore mails a brochure to other Colorado counties advertising his jail. On the cover of the brochure, counties are invited, "House your prisoners in our 'Park'."

Inside, the brochure describes the jail's kitchen and details inmates' recreational opportunities. The jail charges $45 a day to house prisoners.

Gore's pitch has convinced 11 counties to send their prisoners to the Park County Jail, and he has obtained contacts with the Federal Bureau of Prisoners, U.S. Marshals, INS, and two private extradition companies.

He's been soliciting prisoners from other counties for four years, and last year his efforts raked in $1.9 million.

Park County is a poor county, Gore said, and his department's budget is $1.4 million a year. In 2003, the revenue just about covered the budget along with the $375,000 mortgage on the jail.

"This year, I've found it to be a tough economic environment," Gore said.

So far this year, the Park County Jail has brought in $627,000. If the budgets of other counties and agencies are suffering, they have to reduce the number of prisoners they house in Park County.

Obstacles

Herndon said he doesn't intend to advertise the Moffat County Jail to other counties as aggressively as Gore does. Indeed, Herndon didn't even like the idea of soliciting business when the commissioners first pitched it.

"It took me a long time to come around to the idea of drumming up support," Herndon said.

Now, Herndon listens for jails to complain of overcrowding, and he lets them know Moffat County is willing to take their prisoners.

There are 88 beds in the jail. County inmates filled 43 of those beds Thursday and contracted inmates filled seven more. When the jail was built, the commissioners estimated the inmate population would increase by 2 percent each year, Raftopoulos said.

But the inmate population has been growing much faster than expected, primarily due to methamphetamine-related crimes in Craig.

"As the population grows, pretty quickly we won't be able to take anybody," Herndon said.

But at this time, there aren't even many prisoners to take. The Department of Corrections has been releasing prisoners at the same rate they take them in, and thereby avoiding the backlog that fills other prisons, creating an overflow that Moffat County takes advantage of to fill and charge for empty beds.

The jail hasn't received any DOC prisoners lately.

At the same time, the jail's work release program is struggling. One 16-bed pod in the jail is devoted to housing work release inmates, and only four beds there were filled Thursday. There have never been more than eight inmates in it at one time.

The jail earns money from the work release program by charging work release inmates $42 for each day they stay there, plus medical expenses.

Theoretically, the inmates are supposed to earn that fee through their work release jobs. But most of them have minimum wage jobs, and they gross about $200 a week before taxes, Herndon said.

After taxes, they end up owing the jail money. Once they're released from jail, they are good about paying the money back, until they get off parole.

Then they stop paying and they get tied up with collection agencies. It becomes difficult for the jail to collect its money, Herndon said.


Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com

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