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County inmates driving deficits

In recent years Baker County’s crime rate has dropped but its inmate population in county jail has not. It’s been growing and draining the county’s once healthy rainy-day fund in the process.

Since the new Baker County Sheriff’s Complex opened in June 2009, the annual deficit in the county’s fine and forfeiture fund, which covers corrections, law enforcement and other related costs, has steadily grown to $3.9 million.

In the four years between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the deficit more than doubled.

Part of that jump is due to the higher daily rate the county pays per inmate at the new 500-bed facility — roughly $85 per day or $40 more than the rate at the former jail adjacent to the courthouse. But the rising local prisoner population, which has been expanding about 10 percent per year, is also stressing the fine and forfeiture fund.

 

The fund is fed mostly by property taxes but also fines and proceeds from seizures.

During one day of county court this month, defendants were ordered to serve 451 days in county jail at a cost of nearly $38,000 to local taxpayers. A day of circuit court netted six defendants 782 days, which will cost the public roughly $66,000.

Then there’s all the time spent by local residents who land in the jail prior to sentencing. On any given day, there’s about 130 county prisoners, which costs $11,050 per day or $4 million per year.

The fine and forfeiture fund’s shortfall is offset annually by moving money from the county’s general fund at the end of the fiscal year, which contributes greatly to the county’s overall budget deficit.

Clerk of Courts Al Fraser said that budget gap has been sucking about $1.5 million annually from county savings in recent years. The reserve balance once stood at $11 million but today has fallen below the $5 million mark.

The county’s current annual budget is $28.2 million and Mr. Fraser expects the county will once again end the fiscal year on September 30 in the red.

The sales pitch

The former county jail, built in the 1970s, was expanded over the years to a capacity of more than 130 beds, though the structure routinely housed more prisoners.

The facility was ailing before the sheriff’s office got its new home in 2009 and the condition only worsened after the department’s exit.

The old jail sat vacant until the county secured a half-million-dollar grant in 2010 to upgrade its roof, heating and air conditioning, a small cell block to hold court defendants and the front office area once occupied by sheriff’s personnel.

Meanwhile, taxpayers shouldered an increasingly larger bill for keeping criminals off the streets. But unlike in years past, the county could no longer reap the budgetary benefits of housing federal prisoners at a publicly-owned facility.

For more than two decades the U.S. Marshals Service housed its prisoners at the old county jail, which helped offset the county’s costs for housing its owns inmates. But as the local prisoner numbers grew, they began crowding out the so-called “boarders” from other agencies.

Eight years ago Sheriff Joey Dobson was sounding the alarm — space for the boarders was shrinking and with it county revenues.

The sheriff reminded county commissioners in October of 2006 — while lobbying for his plan to build the new jail and sheriff’s complex — that his department returned about $728,000 to county coffers when the fiscal year ended that year.

It wasn’t as much money as he anticipated, Sheriff Dobson said, because the department was running out of space at the existing facility and more could be realized if additional space was available.

Enter the sheriff’s new plan, one that would construct a much larger facility to house hundreds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees for about $45 million.

The county commission, and by extension taxpayers, would not have to borrow or assume any liability for the financing, should the county help create an independent non-profit corporation to sell tax-free bonds to fund the project and oversee repayment through 2030.

There was already a small South Florida community of about 11,000 people — Glades County ­— employing the same strategy.

“We have the opportunity to be on the ground floor of an excellent program that we could build our facility, have ICE inmates for it … and pay for it,” Sheriff Dobson told county commissioners, minutes from an October 3, 2006 workshop show.

County officials, including the sheriff, former county manager Joe Cone and commissioners, began meeting with ICE representatives and a New Jersey-based investment firm’s manager, Jim Swan, who would sell the bonds.

Once the bonds were paid off, the county would own the facility free and clear. Plus, the sheriff told commissioners, any money left over each year could be returned to the county.

According to minutes from another October,  2006 commission meeting, when Sheriff Dobson was asking the board to adopt a resolution in support of creating the nonprofit, he said the county would have to pay the same daily rate for its inmates as ICE, but it would also receive any profit or excess revenue generated by the project on an annual basis.

The following is an excerpt from those minutes showing a conversation between Sheriff Dobson, county attorney Terry Brown, who was later hired by the nonprofit, and former county commissioner Alex Robinson, who now serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors:

Mr. Brown: The Glades County facility is not receiving any profit on an annual basis?

Sheriff Dobson: Yes they will, once the buckets are full and they are up and running. Then they can write a check back to the county for whatever.

Mr. Brown: We can set it up so that the corporate profits each year get paid back to either the department of law enforcement or whatever.

Mr. Robinson: But you do not have to wait until all the bonds are paid?

Sheriff Dobson: No and that is the same question I asked and Mr. Swan [bond salesman] said that is what it is all about, making money for the commissioners.

That was the plan at least.

No excess revenue

In December, 2006 county commissioners adopted the resolution and agreed to supply a $200,000 loan to create the Baker Correctional Development Corporation (BCDC) the following year.

The bonds were sold in early 2008 and the corporation purchased 92 acres north of Macclenny on which to build the project.

Six acres of the tract were deeded to the county as repayment for the seed money. The jail and sheriff’s complex occupies about 20 acres of the tract.

BCDC, which needed more money than anticipated for utility infrastructure, later approached the county for another loan of about $195,000.

An agreement with the county commission was drawn up to outline the terms of repayment but also to address what would happen with any excess revenue BCDC might have at the end of each fiscal year.

That contract, approved by commissioners in 2009, allows the county to either accept the surplus funds — which are whatever remains after all operational expenses, bond-related costs and reserve thresholds are met — or apply the money to early retirement of the bonds.

Once completed in 2009, however, the new jail was slow to fill up.

ICE inmates were coming, but not as many as originally projected. It took a few years before their numbers rose enough to meet BCDC’s initial expectations. In the meantime, the nonprofit was cutting expenses, deferring principle payments on the bonds and struggling to keep the project afloat.

Today BCDC is more financially secure with the facility about 80 percent full. But even though it’s now making full bond payments on schedule and has nearly wiped away other debts incurred during the first years of operation, BCDC finance manager Jeffrey Cox pointed to other obligations it’s been neglecting.

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