Doing nothing about jail costs money

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Some people have begun to question the figures Sheriff Chuck Eddy and the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors have been using to show the current costs of hauling prisoners out of county.

People should take note, though, that Sheriff Eddy and the supervisors are using very real figures to show a very real problem with the current jail.

Based upon current trends for this year, it will cost the county AT LEAST $278,000 to haul prisoners out of county due to lack of available jail space. That figure is over and above the normal day-to-day costs of operating the jail.

So what's included in this figure?

The most obvious cost is what other counties charge to house prisoners, ranging from $40 to $75 a day, averaging at least $50. In addition to that cost, there is the cost for deputies' time to haul prisoners out of county. There's also vehicle cost at 50 cents a mile.

Now it's not just available space that's the problem. It's the fact that juveniles, females, and other prisoners such as those prone to violence or who have mental disorders are required by law to be separated from the general prison population.

The current jail, which has a waiver from the state to house 18 prisoners, may not be able to always house a total of 18 due to those classification issues.

So what happens if the jail bond issue is defeated on Nov. 8?

A couple things could happen. There will be the immediate problem of fixing the aging plumbing and air exchange system. There remains, however, the issue of prisoner classification. If county voters decided against a new jail, the state could easily pull its current waiver and it could cost even more than it currently does to haul prisoners out of county. Right now, the difference in cost between having to haul prisoners out of county and what it could cost to pay off a jail bond is well within $100,000. The point is, if nothing is done and the state pulls its waiver and jail admissions continue to increase as has been the trend, it could cost just as much or more to haul prisoners out of county than it does to pay off the cost of a new jail.

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to figures, so let's get down to brass tacks.

A good analogy might be the difference between a term and a whole or universal life policy. The premium for a term life insurance policy increases as one gets older. If you want to continue to have, say, $500,000 in life insurance coverage, the premiums are going to cost you more as you get older. You get insurance all right, but that's all. You have no equity to show for your money.

With a whole or universal life insurance policy, though, you are building equity or a 'nest egg' for your future. At the same time, you are locked in to a certain premium for the rest of your life. At retirement, you can choose to no longer pay your premiums and have a nice pile of cash waiting for you.

It's exactly the same thing with the jail issue. At the end of 20 years, the jail bond will be paid off and Buena Vista County will have some equity - a jail that should be good for quite a few years. If we as voters decide to do nothing about building a new jail, that's what we'll end up with having - nothing.

I've heard some statements made about non-Caucasians being a 'problem' in filling up the county jail. However, like everyone else, they sometimes find themselves through some mistake or indiscretion spending a night in the county jail.

However, Buena Vista County is doing better than other rural Iowa counties due to non-Caucasians. And you don't get growth without a few growing pains. Having to build a new jail is one of those growing pains. Just as there's an upside to economic development, there's a downside too. But we need both sides to make the circle complete.

* Mike Tidemann is the Pilot-Tribune's assistant editor. He can be reached at mtidemann@stormlakepilottribune.com