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Counties unhappy with jail payments

Sheriffs group says state not paying fairly for housing inmates

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A legislative audit shows that, with the exception of a shortfall last year, the state fully reimburses county jails for housing state inmates. But the Utah Sheriffs Association said the state isn't paying its share.

It's just the next round in a brewing political standoff between Utah's sheriffs and the Legislature over reimbursement for state inmates who serve time in county jails.

The audit, released Thursday, said the jail reimbursement program was fully funded in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, with 2005 seeing a $2.3 million budget shortfall. Davis County Sheriff Bud Cox, who also serves as president of the Utah Sheriffs Association, disputes those numbers. He said the state is consistently coming up short in funding for the jail reimbursement program. The state is supposed to pay 70 percent of the core rate. However, Cox claims counties are only receiving about 60 percent back, on average.

"There is never enough money to pay the bills," Cox said. "Until the Legislature actually funds the full 70 percent reimbursement and lives up to its promises, this fight will not be over."

Legislators called for the audit in May 2005 after state officials suggested some county jails were billing the state for inmates not included under the jail reimbursement program agreement.

A judge has two options in putting felons behinds bars: send the felon to prison or send him to serve up to a year in a county jail. County jails then send reimbursement forms to the Department of Corrections for the days the state inmates are incarcerated.

The audit found that the counties were either under- or over-billing the state 7 percent of the time. Auditors noted the figure was relatively low and that the errors did not appear intentional.

To correct the problem, the audit recommended that counties should review and/or improve their billing processes. The Department of Corrections should also distribute new policies to jails throughout the state to curb misinformation, the audit said.

Such a massive fix-up of billing processes could cost the state a lot of money. The unexpected shortfall in fiscal year 2005 was caused by better record-keeping at the Salt Lake County jail, where eligible beds nearly doubled from 2004 to 2005.

"When the other 28 counties catch on to it, we're not going to have enough money for jail reimbursement," Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, said.

Cox said the audit confirmed that the counties have been telling the truth about the jail reimbursement program's problems. Now that legislators have the audit, the two sides can begin to rebuild a trust that was lost long ago, he said.

Earlier Thursday, the Senate Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee unanimously passed a bill that could potentially improve the reimbursement rates for counties. Sponsored by Sen. David Thomas, R-South Weber, SB50 would allow the core rate to include capital depreciation costs — a change which could raise the core rate by as much as $20 per day.

Because the full core rate, currently $42, is used when establishing contracts with county jails and 70 percent of the core rate is given to jails that house state felons who are not sent to the state prison, it could also increase the costs to the state significantly. However, that increased core rate would have to be approved by the Legislature as part of the budget process, meaning that even with the change, the rates may not actually increase.

"It's an intermediate step that allows capital depreciation costs to be included in the core rate," Thomas said. "It does not guarantee that it will be fully funded."

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said that it costs his county $61 per day to house an inmate if capital costs are included, but that the state only pays them $34 after the 30 percent reduction in the core rate for state felons who are ordered by courts to stay in the county jail. Being able to include the capital costs would at least provide a better picture about the true costs of taking those state prisoners, he said.

"This is a good step to help us at least not lose financially for housing these state prisoners," Tracy said.

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com; jloftin@desnews.com