In Greek mythology, Achilles was the greatest warrior of them all. The legend was that he was invulnerable because his mother, Thetis, had dipped his body in the River Styx when he was an infant.
Achilles had a problem, though. Thetis had held him by his heel, which did not receive the invulnerability the rest of his body did. Towards the end of the Trojan War (yes, the one with the big wooden horse), the Trojan warrior Paris shot an arrow into Achilles’ heel, fatally wounding him.
Since the mid-1800s, when many of the Greek myths were being rediscovered, the term “Achilles’ Heel” has come to describe a weakness in something that is otherwise strong.
For La Paz County’s finances, it has become clear the Achilles’ Heel for the general fund is the County Jail District. Specifically, its reliance on federal inmates for revenue.
The current jail replaced a completely inadequate facility that was inherited from Yuma County. It had been little more than a lock-up and holding facility for prisoners waiting to be transferred to Yuma.
When the new jail was built, it was said that building it to hold inmates from other jurisdictions could be used to help the jail pay for itself and bring money into the county.
That worked as long as the county was getting federal inmates. Revenue from these inmates meant the jail was paying for itself, and the jail district was bringing in money for the county.
That changed some years back, when the Obama Administration decided to pull federal inmates out of Arizona jails in response to SB 1070, the state’s anti-illegal immigration law. The jail went from being a money-maker to being a drain on the general fund. Any shortfalls in the jail’s budget must be paid for via the general fund.
That situation continues today. While we have more federal inmates now, it’s not nearly at the level it once was. To balance the 2021-22 general fund, the county had to borrow $1.2 million from the solar fund. That was used to cover much of the $1.3 million shortfall in the jail district. That shortfall was a major part of the $2.1 million shortfall in the general fund.
As was noted at the Aug. 26 special meeting of the Board of Supervisors, the county’s general fund does not have the reserves to pay for the shortfall in the jail district.
What happened during the Obama Administration should have been an eye-opener for the county. As long as the jail is dependent on federal inmates, it is dependent on forces beyond the county’s control. Obama was a Democrat, but he could just as well have been a Republican. If the jail is dependent on federal inmates, then the county’s financial health is subject to the whims of the Administration and Congress in Washington.
Would you trust your financial health to Congress or the Administration? If you said “no,” then neither should La Paz County.
District 1 Supervisor David Plunkett was right when he said the county needed to figure out how to finance the jail without federal inmates. This should’ve been obvious years ago. It shouldn’t have taken a freshman county supervisor to say it several years later.
We’ve heard talk of closing the jail, but that would be a mistake. The cost of paying other counties to house our inmates and the cost of transporting inmates would likely be just as expensive as maintaining our own jail.
The simple fact is maintaining a jail is part of the cost of doing business as a county.
Along with all the other measures the county is looking at, they need to look at ways of paying for the jail without federal inmates or, for that matter, state inmates as well. While it’s nice to have these inmates and they do a lot for the jail district’s bottom line, we can’t count on having them. There are too many forces beyond the county’s control here.
Let’s put it this way: federal inmates should be seen as gravy or dessert, not meat and potatoes.
It’s time the county recognized this and did something about it.