Fiscal Court starts discussions on new jail

Published 8:28 am Wednesday, November 1, 2023

County taxpayers paying $6,000 a month for state inmate’s medical bills

By Fiona Morgan

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The Fiscal Court began discussions on building a new jail at a special called meeting Oct. 19.

The idea of building a new jail has been around since 2018, when a jail study was conducted by Brandstetter Carroll. The study concluded that Boyle County would benefit from a new jail with more beds and dedicated areas for addiction and mental health treatment.

Jailer Brian Wofford explained that the current facility is deteriorating, they constantly have to make repairs, some walls have water damage, they need more beds, more treatment areas, and they don’t have room to expand.

The county has contracted with Brandstetter Carroll to design a new jail. Wofford said he needs the court to decide what kind of jail they want before they can start designing it.

The current jail has 220 beds, and Wofford said he thinks 250 beds would be ideal. They would also have rooms for treatment.

“You have to have room for spikes and that’s all in the study,” Wofford said. “If there’s a mass arrest, you have to have room, so really 85% of whatever your bed count is, you’re full.”

Eric Chambers with Brandstetter Carroll, who worked a little on the study in 2018, explained that one estimate for a new jail back then was about $30 million, but now it’s about $60 million. He said in 2018 they were looking at $350 per square foot of building, and now they’re seeing $600 per square foot.

“Since the study was completed to where we are today, costs for construction have almost doubled in a lot of situations,” Chambers said. “A $30 million project in 2018 was a lot different than a $30 million project today.”

The cost of renovating the current site vs. building new somewhere else is relatively similar.

If they rebuild at the current site, the county would have to pay other counties to house their inmates while they tear down and rebuild.

To start the process, the county has to justify to the Department of Corrections why they need a new facility, which Wofford said should be easy given that they’ve done a study. They also have to find and acquire property, which Chambers said they have to do first before they can start design.

Judge Executive Trille Bottom has reached out to the state government asking if they’d be willing to give the county some empty land at North Point Training Center, which is near Burgin. She requested 10 acres about two months ago, but has not heard back a definite answer.

Magistrates, along with Chambers, agreed that the North Point site would be ideal, since it would provide plenty of land with the opportunity to expand if needed. The county wouldn’t have to try to buy local property with neighbors who could be against the project; utilities are already at the site; and North Point Prison could possibly provide backup employees in extreme situations.

State inmate costs

The court also has to decide if they want to continue housing state inmates, which comes at a cost to local taxpayers.

Magistrate Tom Ellis, who’s chair of the jail committee, brought up in the meeting that county taxpayers are paying $6,000 to $9,000 a month in medical bills for one state inmate. This inmate has ongoing health issues that require expensive prescription medication, which the state is not compensating the county for.

“State inmates” are the responsibility of DOC to either put in state facilities or pay county jails to house. Those inmates have committed felonies and are sentenced to at least a year in prison.

Wofford explained that the county gets $46 per day per inmate, whereas the actual cost to house them is around $50 to $60 or more. That state compensation recently went up from $35 a day. They also get a little over $2 a day for medical costs, but Wofford said it doesn’t cover the actual cost.

The inmate with $6,000 monthly medication just got a 10 year sentence, his out date set for 2029. Wofford said it’s likely that no other jail would accept him.

“You’re looking at $80,000 a year just on the medication, and that’s keeping him on the cheaper [$6,000 medication], or if he has to go to the more expensive one, which is $9,000,” Wofford explained. “That’s just one inmate; if we get three or four of those inmates you’re talking half a million dollars a year subsidizing state inmates.”

On average, about 50% of the Boyle jail’s inmates are state inmates. Wofford said they currently have 86 from the state, which is a low count, as they normally have around 115.

Ellis said they should try to get a state statute changed to where it would be on the state to compensate counties for inmate medical costs that exceed their daily rate.

“Housing state inmates is not a good financial deal for our taxpayers,” Ellis said.

The state is currently facing a lawsuit by the Kentucky Jailers Association, which Wofford is a part of, so the county is technically part of it through the association. The lawsuit is in regards to the state allegedly not paying counties enough money needed to house their inmates.

The suit also alleges that the DOC is not transferring state inmates from jails to prisons in a timely manner according to law, leaving inmates in jails much longer than the 90 days they have to transfer inmates.

Wofford said the suit could go on for 18 to 24 months before things might change. However, he said the county still benefits from housing state inmates because it helps with cash flow.

“The benefit of the state is just cash flow; it helps us because they pay us every month, a little over $100,000 a month,” Wofford said. “It’s not profit, it just helps us pay the bills and have money coming in, but we still lose money from it.”

Magistrate Paula Bodner pointed out that it doesn’t make fiscal sense for the county, saying, “It sounds like it’s a no-brainer to not have state inmates here, if you’re always going to have medications that could be so astronomically large for one person, or surgeries.”

However, magistrates pointed out that if they stop housing state inmates, the state would be much less willing to give property at North Point for their new jail. The court did not make a decision on whether to stop housing state inmates.

The cost

Acquiring property from North Point would likely save the county money rather than if they had to buy other land. Magistrates agreed that 250 beds is a good number and would help keep costs down.

The county will likely get bonds for much of the project. Bottom said a 300 bed jail would exceed the county’s bonding capacity, which is $50 million.

Monica Sumner, a Brandstetter Carroll representative who’s making sure contractual obligations are met, said they could design for future expansions, or build the jail in phases to spread out the high costs of construction.

She brought up the idea of designing support spaces, like kitchens and laundries, for a larger jail. Then if or when they expand dorms, the support facilities are already prepared to expand as well. She said the North Point site would be easy to expand on, and that the site will always be good for a jail since the prison is already there.

“Long term, you look at 30, 40, 50 years from now, I think that site is still a good site; whereas if you were to purchase something around here, like on the bypass, 40 years from now that might not be a good site,” Summer said. “Out there I think it remains a good site even many many years from now.”

Magistrate Barry Harmon, who was a local jailer for many years, said he thinks the new jail is an opportunity for the county to be innovative.

“This idea comes into our conversation of ‘how cheap can we get it done?’ You do it right, it’s going to cost you; if you do it wrong it’s going to cost you. There’s no way of getting out of the cost of a jail,” Harmon said.

Sumner said aside from budget discussions, they can’t do much else until the county acquires land.

“We can’t design something when we don’t yet know what you need,” Sumner said. “As a Fiscal Court your big decisions are where is it going, and here’s what we can afford, and we take it from there.”

She continued, “We can still be doing thinking-level planning on bed counts, square footage, budgets, so that when you do have an opportunity to purchase land, we can validate that decision.”

Wofford said he wants to be sure that the county puts much more emphasis on treatment for inmates with addiction and mental health troubles, especially since they’ve seen success with current treatment programs.

“The big thing in there is to make sure we have treatment rooms, you know treatment works,” Wofford said. “For every dollar you invest in treatment like this, your ROI is like $4.15, so it pays because they come back out productive, they’re paying taxes, working, they’re getting their families back together.”

Ellis agreed, saying that formerly incarcerated individuals help fill the local workforce.

“We really need the public to understand that it’s evolutionary and revolutionary that we have many workers in our community right now who have been incarcerated sometime in their lives,” Ellis said.

The county may face delays in jail construction if the state legislation passes a moratorium on jail construction, which was brought up in the General Assembly this year. Sumner said they haven’t heard whether the state will continue pursuing the moratorium in the 2024 session.

There’s also been talk about regionalizing jails, where the state would take over all jails in Kentucky and only have regional ones, according to Wofford. He said the Jailers Association doesn’t expect that that would happen anytime soon, if at all.

“You’re looking at probably $300 to $500 million to even build 10 [regional jails] and then they have to run them, so you know the state’s not going to do that; I don’t really think that’ll happen.”

Wofford said that if anyone from the public is against the county spending so much money on a new jail, he would invite them to take a tour of the current jail. He said he’s given tours to the public in the past, who have all agreed after seeing the state of the current jail that it needs an upgrade.

He suggested that magistrates pick a date and invite people from their district to tour the jail.