County Jail

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.

  

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(4) comments

ANelson

Aside from the costs and transportation to other County's jails, you neglect to mention the Law. >> ARS 11-441. Powers and duties A. The sheriff shall: 5. Take charge of and keep the county jail, including a county jail under the jurisdiction of a county jail district, and the prisoners in the county jail.<< It would also expose the County to litigation for actions that the County would have no control over. Law Suits against Counties and Sheriffs over Jail conditions are common. La Paz County has been sued several times over actions and conduct of its jail employees, and for conditions in the jail. The majority have been frivolous and without merit, but some have been litigated to the complainant's favor, with either settlements or monetary awards. La Paz County inmates, in other facilities, would be able to sue both the County operating the jail they are confined in and the County ordering confinement (La Paz). La Paz County would be liable for actions beyond its control. It's not as simple as just shipping them off to be somebody else's problem. How about also addressing the County "leaders" becoming reliant on the extra money produced by the Jail District during the good years? Several million dollars were pumped into the County during those years, but when the cash cow dried up, they didn't tighten THEIR purse strings, but continued to spend money they didn't have, while demanding that the Sheriffs find ways to save money.

Michael Roth

Police state much a Nelson? Nice excuses for failure there....

ORLY

Its time for La Paz County Leaders to think of real long term solutions, and not just book cooking. The problem is not going away. Building a Jail too expensive to operate without rent a bed revenue was short sighted and foolish on the part of Marvin Hare and the early 90's BoS. They didn't even think to ask what would happen if the golden goose died. That's what happens when you build a 250 bed facility, but the county only needs about 70 beds.

Will Sheriff Ponce have the courage to propose long term solutions? Or will he throw on some duct tape and call it "fixed," just like Lowery, Drum, and Risen did? Only for the tape the break and drive the county to bankruptcy...again. The legislature is only going to bail La Paz out so many times.

Here's an example of an idea that would actually FIX the problem. Push a Jail District Bond initiative to finance the building of a new jail. Build a smaller facility (80 to 100 beds). Maybe even throw in a separate, small juvenile wing so we can stop paying Yuma to House Juveniles. Build the new jail in Salome, where the old Salone Jail is. Plenty of room there. Ensure the new facilities' operating expenses are small enough to be finances 100% by jail district revenue (Not counting Parker Jail operating expenses). House all JP 5 bookings and jail sentences there.

During good times, when there is enough Rent a Bed Income, rent out beds in both the Parker Jail and Salome Jail beds. With Salome's close proximity to West-Phoenix Metro, even rent Salome jail beds to Buckeye, Goodyear, Avondale, Tolleson, Surprise, etc.... PD's. We can do it significantly cheaper than Maricopa, and Salome is close enough to get them on board.

Then, when times are bad and there is not enough rent a bed income to support the Parker Jail....CLOSE THE PARKER JAIL. Leave the booking area open for Parker area bookings and overnight holds, transport anyone who isn't released the next day to the Salome Jail. House all county inmates in the new Salome Jail.

You now have increased Rent a Bed income during good times, and a facility that can be operated 100% by Jail District revenue during bad times. County General Fund is safe, BUT the General Fund should get no Rent a Bed income until the Salome Jail bond is fully paid off.

A lot of details are open to debate and evaluation. But a drastic move such as that is the only way there will be a long term fix that won't drain the general fund.

Someone needs to fix the mistakes made by Marvin Hare and the 90's BoS.

Off topic, that makes at least two multi-million dollar drains on the county with Gene Fisher's fingerprints all over them (Jail and Yakima).

jtruly

Where is Dan, "The Rattlesnake" Fields, and Sam, "The Beetle" Vederman when you need them???

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