Park County Commissioners and Sheriff Tom McGraw are in complete agreement that maintaining the Park County Jail has become economically cumbersome. They even agree as to the multitude of reasons why the jail has become so burdensome from a budgetary perspective.
But when discussing potential solutions to the problem, or more specifically, the ramifications of those solutions as they pertain to the county’s annual budget, as well as the Sheriff Office’s annual budget, the conversation gets decidedly more contentious.
That was certainly the case Nov. 21 at a commissioner’s meeting in Fairplay, where McGraw appeared before the board for a lengthy, and at times, emotional back and forth about potential budget cuts within Sheriff’s Department.
According to the commissioners, a downturn in prisoners over the years, combined with the ever-increasing operation and staffing expenses for the facility, has prompted an immediate need for budget cuts. The facility is equipped to hold 145 prisoners, but generally maintains an average of about 45.
The Sheriff’s Office itself has a total annual operating budget of about $4.7 million. About $2.7 million is designated for the operation of the Sheriff’s Office itself, and the remainder, about $2.08 million, is required to maintain the Park County Jail.
The commissioners are requesting that McGraw find ways to reduce the jail’s annual operating expenses to around $1.25 million.
At the Nov. 21 meeting, Commissioner Richard Elsner made his case to McGraw.
“You need to start looking at innovative, nontraditional ways to save on budget,” Elsner said. “Take a look at everything. Even little things … not huge things … they add up. We are looking for ways to cut in all departments.”
McGraw made his case as well.
“We are operating bare bones at the jail and I can’t do much about it,” McGraw said.
“If we have any more than five prisoners, then it is absolutely necessary that we have at least the number of uniformed people we have at the facility right now. It is completely unreasonable to risk someone in the department getting injured or killed at the jail because they are waiting for someone to respond from Guffey or somewhere. I want a safe jail. Safe for the people in this department, and safe for prisoners.”
Following the meeting, Elsner elaborated on the commissioners’ position to The Flume.
“The Sheriff’s arguments are valid, but we also have to find a way to get the budget cut,” Elsner said.
“I think what we have done so far to support the Sheriff is good, and there is no buyer’s remorse for those things. But times have changed, and revenue from the jail has declined, operating expenses have increased, and the question now is what to do about it.”
Elsner also stated that his desire would be to have a jail that is appropriate for Park County, and not a regional prison complex. Similarly, McGraw sometimes refers to the facility as a “monstrosity of a jail.”
“Do we sink money into an inefficient facility?” Elsner asked hypothetically.
“Perhaps a new justice center would be more efficient. It is something we should get public comments and opinions about at the very least.”
In a Nov. 24 phone interview with The Flume, McGraw shared some of the unique challenges the jail situation presents, and also discussed possible solutions going forward.
“We invited the commissioners out to tour the jail recently and explained to them in great detail why we need 14 uniformed people at the jail, and four who serve as transport deputies,” McGraw said.
“At a previous meeting I also provided the commissioners with some different options to try to save money.”
McGraw said the jail could potentially be turned into a transport facility, as to decrease the staff necessary to run the facility. That, however, requires paying other jails for that service. Furthermore, state statutes mandate that any county with a population of more than 2,000 citizens must have a county jail.
When the Park County Jail was constructed in 1995, the idea was for it to house many more prisoners than it does today. And at that time, circumstances were such that it did. Today, however, both the commissioners and McGraw agree that a variety of factors have changed to make the sheer size of the complex a liability rather than an asset.
According to Elsner and McGraw, the following are all contributing factors that make drawing prisoners from other places less viable than in years past:
The number of inmates statewide has been reduced due to the decriminalization of particular crimes by the state legislature.
The Department of Corrections recently opened a new 600-bed prison in Canon City that drastically reduced the need to transport prisoners to locations such as Park County.
Accepting particular types of prisoners, such as those who present discipline problems or have health issues, is often problematic and costly.
Some prisoners, especially those with health conditions, would not fare well at a high-altitude location.
Many surrounding jails will select a more geographically convenient location in which to take prisoners, especially during the winter months.
The Park County Jail used to be a popular location for state-mandated boot camps, but that program has since been dissolved.
“We are constantly calling around to see if other locations have prisoners they would like to transport to us, but they are just not out there in large numbers,” McGraw said.
The state pays Park County $58 per night, per state inmate.
Finally, with regards to staffing the jail, McGraw insisted that 14 uniformed officers are required to handle all of the necessary shifts, 24 hours per day.
“The Sheriff’s Office’s employees are unique in the way that we work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We have no snow days. If it snows five feet, they still have to get to work. If someone is sick, they have to be replaced. And if we are understaffed at the jail, for instance, overtime pay is time-and-a-half and becomes very costly, very quickly. No other group of employees in the county are in that situation.”
Elsner, meanwhile, put an exclamation point on his argument with hard numbers.
“We operate on a ‘zero base budget,’” Elsner said. “We must keep 25 percent in reserve at all times, enough to operate for three months. At the Sheriff’s current budget, that 25 percent is cut down to about nineteen percent. This is not personal. If it was, then we’d probably give the Sheriff’s Office all it wants.”