‘It can impact about anything’
County tackles jail costs as commissioner joins reform task force
ALPENA — Operating a jail and properly caring for inmates comes with a high price tag, and Alpena County officials said they have to do things in new ways to reduce costs.
This fiscal year, Alpena County budgeted $150,000 for inmate boarding, $125,000 to cover their medical expenses, and $30,000 for other costs related to those incarcerated. The budgeted expenses for this year is nearly $2.4 million for the sheriff’s office, while revenues are a projected $476,139.
The sheriff’s office and jail are funded by the county’s general fund, but take in revenue through grants for such things as a secondary road patrol officer, equipment, and training.
Alpena County Commissioner Bill Peterson, who recently was named to a state task force on jail overpopulation, said the Sheriff’s Office and jail cost about 20% of the county’s general fund budget. If those costs continue to climb, officials could be forced to cut or reduce non-mandated services, such as road patrol or maintenance on county-owned property and equipment.
“It can impact about anything in the budget,” he said.
To ward off such cuts, Peterson said, the state’s Jail and Pretrial Incarceration Task Force is looking for ways to get inmates with mental health issues out of jail and to the proper treatment.
In addition, “there are too many people who have committed non-violent crimes who can’t make bail who are just sitting there,” he said. “Maybe we need to leave them at home and get them involved in volunteering for community projects and not letting them lose their jobs because they are in jail.”
Judge Thomas LaCross, of the 88th District Court, said jail population and cost-cutting are not factors in his decision making process.
“It is not even a consideration and it’s not appropriate, because the primary issue is public safety,” LaCross said. “It doesn’t make a difference if the person in mentally ill because you can’t put people at risk to save money. There are mental health services at the jail — at least some — so we always review what we think is best and do what we feel is appropriate. To make decisions based on money over public safety would be irresponsible.”
The Alpena County jail can hold 69 inmates, Jail Administrator Scott Gagnon said, but typically holds fewer.
On average over the last five years, fewer than 60 inmates were incarcerated there per day. The highest annual daily average was 58 in 2014 and 2018, while the lowest was 47 in 2013.
Gagnon said inmates are charged $25 each day they are incarcerated, but less than 1% of inmates pay their bill once released.
This year, the county budgeted $14,600 in income from such payments, a drop in the bucket, in terms of overall expenses.
The county is ramping up work on its 2020 budget and more than likely will include a bump in funding for the Sheriff’s Office.
In past years, proceeds from the sheriff’s contract to provide security at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center subsidized the county budget and allowed the county to purchase vehicles, equipment, and other items countywide.
Earlier this year, the county lost that contract to a lower bidder.
The county had $721,000 in the base security fund at the beginning of 2019, Alpena County Treasurer Kim Ludlow said, but a significant portion of that is earmarked for unemployment for workers who could lose their jobs during the transition and for patrol cars and any other costs associated with rounding out the terms of the contract.
Ludlow estimates about $400,000 will be left over once the county’s duties at the base cease. Ludlow said she didn’t want to speculate on how that money would be used — or if it will be used at all — for the time being.
“That will be entirely up to the (county) commissioners,” she said. “They can use it for the general fund, the sheriff’s department, or just save it. It is up to them how they feel the money is best used.”
Some jails accept inmates from other counties’ overcrowded jails and are paid by the other county.
Gagnon said Alpena County does so rarely and that’s unlikely to change, even when the county opens the new, bigger-capacity jail under construction now after voters OK’d a property tax hike.
“The people spoke pretty loud and clear during the millage process that they didn’t want other counties’ problems in our community,” Gagnon said. “I don’t think that is the intention, at least at this time.”
Once the new, $11 million jail in Alpena is complete next year, the number of available beds will climb to 94, but officials are not hoping for more inmates as a way to bring in more revenue.
“We planned for the future and any change in trends in the crime rate there may be,” Peterson, the county commissioner, said. “Alpena has an aging population so I think the crime rate will stay about the same or maybe drop. But we don’t know what it will be like in 20 or 50 years, so we needed to make sure we had enough room at the new jail in case it does go up.”
Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.
Alpena County Jail inmate population
Year Average daily population Average daily female population Total Incarcerated
2013 47 9 486
2014 58 12 551
2015 56 9 519
2016 51 8 559
2017 55 11 512
2018 58 12 535
2019 (as of Aug. 22) 57 9 388