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Crow Wing County Board: Sheriff reduces budget request

An initiative to reopen a vacant housing unit in the Crow Wing County Jail closed the county's $875,000 budget gap by half in its goal to maintain a flat or reduced levy, the county board learned Tuesday.

An initiative to reopen a vacant housing unit in the Crow Wing County Jail closed the county's $875,000 budget gap by half in its goal to maintain a flat or reduced levy, the county board learned Tuesday.

Budget discussions continued at the committee of the whole meeting as the Crow Wing County Board prepares to certify a preliminary property tax levy for 2016 next week.

Commissioners once again heard from Sheriff Todd Dahl, who initially submitted department budget requests with considerable increases over last year's budgets.

Dahl's 2016 budget, which originally included a more than $625,000 increase, now accounts for reopening a currently vacant housing unit in the county jail. The housing unit would be used for Minnesota Departments of Corrections inmates and would garner the county $55 per bed per day.

Reopening the unit will require the hiring of six additional staff and changes to medical staffing, but the potential revenue increase will likely offset these costs, said Tina Elder, sheriff's office manager.

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Although the state does not guarantee how much it will pay counties for use of jail beds, a projected annual revenue of $350,000 was enough to drastically reduce Dahl's requested budget increase to $213,000. Representing a 2.2 percent increase over the 2015 budget, the total increases in all area's of the sheriff's budget equal less than the personnel costs alone in the original request, Elder said.

A timeline developed by Dahl and Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson projects the housing unit will reopen by March 1, 2016. Containing 60 beds, the intention for the unit is to use the whole space for state prisoners.

This is not the first time Dahl has approached the county board about the potential for increasing revenue by opening the housing unit. In 2013, commissioners voted down a request from Dahl to hire additional staff, a choice Dahl said was driving the budget increases his office submitted.

County Administrator Tim Houle said concerns raised about the move at the time went back to 2009, when a previous contract with DOC dissolved and the sheriff's office was forced to fill budget holes left in the wake. The contract at that time included a 30-day notice period, a clause county officials said created uncertainty in hiring staff specifically to fulfill the contract.

Darnel Carlson, assistant jail administrator, said the DOC has indicated they are willing to agree to a 6-month cancellation clause in lieu of a 30-day notice.

"This is totally different than we were told two years ago," Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said.

Houle said one way to cushion the blow should the DOC dissolve another contract in the future would be for the county to designate funds matching the maximum potential cost of unemployment for the workers hired to run the housing unit. This figure, Houle said, would still be less than one year of projected income from the agreement.

Elder said she was part of the committee who developed the plan for the jail when it was built nine years ago. She said the plan was for the jail to achieve full capacity within 10 years, which it is on track to do with the reopening. The potential for the unit to close again continues to grow dimmer, Elder said, in light of trends within the justice system.

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"It's just not the reality of today," Elder said.

A spike in county inmates coupled with an ever increasing need for beds at the state level is likely to support the need for the unit, she added.

Franzen asked sheriff's office officials to clarify whether state prisoners boarded at the county jail become residents of Crow Wing County upon release. She stated she'd received at least one phone call from someone voicing concern at the idea in fear of introducing more criminals to the area.

Carlson said when jail staff release state or other county inmates, the inmates are required to have a ride out of the county. When it comes to state inmates, Carlson said most housed in the county jail stay there for one year and are then transported to another facility to continue their sentence.

Houle called the revised budget proposal "an extraordinary effort by the sheriff's team" to reduce its tax burden on Crow Wing County residents. The county board is set to approve a preliminary property tax levy for 2016 on Tuesday. After that, the levy can be reduced further but cannot be raised.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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