(Margaret Sabec/WOUB)

Jails: The New Revenue For Counties?

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With a state budget that potentially gives less to rural counties and a lingering need for more jobs throughout the region, some are looking to corrections to fill the need.

Southeast Ohio counties like Meigs County are looking to taxpayers to help build new facilities, which would bring about jobs and a new funding source. The Meigs County Sheriff’s Office and the Meigs County Commissioners are working to get a 2.95-mill levy on a special election ballot in August, to bring about the $9 million they need to upgrade the Meigs County Jail.

“Everything that we’ve looked at in the last couple years, in trying to decide how to do it and how to move forward with the project has been: this, definitively, is the fix,” Meigs County Sheriff Keith Wood said.

As it stands now, the Meigs County Jail has room for five people in its more than 100-year-old building. For any other inmates, Meigs County deputies have to transport to nearby facilities, one of which is in Middleport, and another is the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail in Nelsonville.

The new jail plans hold the potential for 60 to 70 beds, which could be rented to other counties, Wood said.

With a planned “per diem” charge – the rate to house a prisoner for a day – of $60, Meigs County hopes to pay off the 30-year loan early, and using the savings to pad the county’s general fund.

“(The general fund money) would help patch holes, it would help provide funding for unfunded mandates, it would allow us to continue to do capital improvements,” said Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith.

On top of bringing money into the county through prisoner per diem funds, Smith said the new facility would save money on transportation and law enforcement costs when it comes to taking those arrested in Meigs County to the regional jail.

Two road deputies are assigned to road duty during dayshift, according to Smith. Those deputies are also the ones that are tasked with transporting prisoners if needed.

“So, we’ve got our road deputies out making transports instead of being in the county to answer calls,” Smith said.

Other counties are also seeing the budget crunch of taking their prisoners to the regional jail. At a recent meeting of the regional jail member counties, sheriffs and county representatives said they were concerned about the change in per diem rates.

Member counties in the regional jail are Athens, Hocking, Morgan, Perry and Vinton counties. Those counties pay a different amount than non-members, and pay more or less money depending on the capacity of the prison in a given month. The county members are depended upon to help the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail meet its $4 million budget.

For the month of February, each member county was charged $71.12 per inmate, per day, according to figures provided by the jail. Non-member counties paid $65 per inmate.

Former regional jail warden Jeremy Tolson noted at the meeting that when he began as warden more than 18 years ago, per diem rates were in the 50s.

The money for the per diem charges comes from county budgets. In Athens County, the county commissioners allot a certain amount for the sheriff’s office, and the prison costs come from that amount.

“So, the more money that the commissioners give the jail, the more we have to think about a reduction in our budget,” Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said.

Other counties are contemplating their own jails for this reason. Perry County representatives said consideration was being made for a county jail in their area.

“It’s very hard for us to put a budget together to what we’re going to pay down here at the regional jail,” said Brad Agriesti, chief probation officer with the Perry County Court and regional jail board member.

The fact that member counties pay more to reserve their beds in the jail was also a point of debate.

“That’s just hard for us as a county member to swallow, that (non-member counties are) paying less than the member counties,” Agriesti said. “So we will be researching this…we’ve had major discussions about this since I’ve been on the (regional jail) board.”

Like Meigs, Perry County officials also like the idea of having locals benefiting from a jail operation.

“Obviously if they live and work (in Perry County), they’re going to eat there, there’s benefits to the county,” said Perry County Commissioner Ben Carpenter. “It’s a bottom line for us, we’ve got to do what’s most economical.”

Sheriff Smith said he’s willing to look into the idea of “outsourcing” prisoners to help the regional jail avoid going over capacity, but he wants to see the regional jail succeed as well.

“The more we can keep per diem down, and the more money we can save and the more economical we can make the regional jail, the better off everybody is,” Smith said.