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Fatal flaw in new jail: feds are in charge

If you read Joel Addington’s in-depth look at the financial picture surrounding Baker County’s new jail two weeks ago, then his opinion piece last week on the county commission’s funding woes, you might have scratched your head.

Essentially Mr. Addington pointed out in the first instance that prospects of an operating surplus at the new jail flowing into the coffers of the county commission are bleak.

Then he opined that a dreaded operating deficit in this coming year’s county budget may not be as dire as in recent years when Baker County’s $11 million cash surplus was sucked down to its present $3 million.

The main culprit, of course, has been the cost of housing county prisoners at the new jail. Their numbers steadily rise, and county taxpayers are on the hook for the $85 a day boarding fee per inmate, the same as the non-profit running the jail gets for ICE inmates.

That could reach $100 a day soon, and kick in the same obligation for local inmates.

There’s the heart of the problem. From the get-go, the new jail project brought with it some risks, but none greater than this: we are charged with paying back $40 million in indebtedness, but we’re not in charge.

The Department of Homeland Security is in control. If that doesn’t make you nervous, it should.

The fiscal soundness of the new jail has as its core a steady stream of inmates held for varying lengths of time because they are: a) in this country illegally, and b) they’ve had run-ins with the law, both serious and not so serious.

ICE pays most of the bill at the jail, and makes the rules. If they want a free-standing barber shop, or a manned law library,  lighted tennis courts or coffee bars on every floor — they’ll get it.

If the county could return to the old rate, less than half the present one, that it paid to house local inmates, it would relieve the annual deficit threat to the entire county budget.

But no dice. You can’t charge ICE inmates any more than the local boys. Remember who’s making the rules.

The fine and forfeiture shortfall last year — $3.9 million — could be greatly relieved with a lower per day inmate cost, which would in turn erase the $1.5 operating deficit in the total county budget.

But we’re not in charge, and that’s the single biggest weakness in the arrangement.

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