In 2007, with a brand-new jail, Hall County decided to get into the business of boarding out-of-county inmates.
Since then, the program has drawn scrutiny.
Receipts for fiscal 2011 show the boarding program pulled in $6,199,352.54. Yet Gainesville real estate executive Frank Norton Jr. says when costs are included, the program only generates a profit of $529,071. Those costs include damage caused by out-of-county inmates, transporting them and court costs.
An independent study by retired sheriff Bill Lemacks, who now works with the Georgia Sheriff's Association's Jail Support Division, projects revenue for fiscal 2012 as $4,329,984. That study took costs into account, including transportation, food, utilities and officer salaries, including any benefits received.
The program has come under fire along with the overall Hall County Sheriff's Office budget as the county has made drastic cuts in government services in the slow economy.
Norton recently published an in-depth report
examining the Hall County Sheriff's Office budget and questioning the revenue of the boarding program.
"The county has gone into the boarding business without, I believe, a full repayment back to the taxpayers," Norton said. "The taxpayers built a jail for Hall County, and we built the jail sufficient enough for the next generation as this county grew."
Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic argues Norton's calculations are flawed because they are based on fixed costs and other disproportionate figures. He said the county has more jail beds than it needs, providing an opportunity to profit from the boarding program.
Each year since it began, part of the county budget approved by commissioners includes a line item for revenue for the boarding program. In fiscal 2011, that revenue was budgeted at $5,550,000, and was exceeded by more than $500,000.
Prior to construction of the current jail, Hall County housed inmates in other counties' jails.
"In that we learned, of course, that there was a market for that," Cronic said. "There were counties making substantial funds off their excess jail space, so as we moved forward ... there was the opportunity to ... put the financial shoe on the other foot so that we would become the beneficiary."
The jail was designed to be expanded when it could no longer house all of Hall County's inmates. But until the jail is at capacity with local prisoners, officials plan to board out-of-county inmates to use that space.
Lemacks' study determined the program's total costs for fiscal year 2012 as $1,553,816. After subtracting that number from the average annual revenue from the board-in program — $5,883,800 — the total annual revenue projected was $4,329,984.
One of those costs is additional jailers. Using the number of out-of-county inmates, Lemacks determined the jail requires 24 additional jailers to cover two floors in the jail, totaling $1,017,055 in salary costs.
Food for inmates costs $0.747 per meal. The cost for 403 inmates eating three meals a day totals $329,640 in annual expenses. Utility usage for boarded prisoners totals $82,936.
Even if the county didn't house out-of-county, it would have to pay part of that utility cost because the jail was not designed to shut off electricity for specific areas of the jail, which jail Commander Capt. Mark Bandy admits is a design flaw of the facility.
Since the county began its boarding program, it has housed inmates from several counties, including Forsyth, Baldwin, Barrow, Clarke and Fulton.
Fulton County inmates have been the most prevalent out-of-county prisoners since 2009. In 2010, Fulton paid Hall $3,681,720 to house its inmates. Hall County charges Fulton $36 per day per inmate if it houses more than 100 and $45 per day if there are fewer than 100.
Compared to other counties, Hall's rates are in the median range. DeKalb County charges $57 each to house Fulton inmates.
Morgan County also charges Fulton a higher rate than Hall. Previous contracts with Fulton included a charge of $35 per day per inmate, with Fulton responsible for transportation.
Norton argues that because other counties charge higher rates, Hall should as well.
However, neither DeKalb nor Morgan is currently housing any Fulton inmates.
Sgt. Adrion Bell, public information officer for the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office, said the reason for the high boarding cost is increased security needs, as the DeKalb jail is much larger than Hall's. The DeKalb jail has a capacity of more than 3,500 inmates compared to Hall's 1,026.
According to county records, the Hall County Jail's average number of inmates remains fairly consistent and near capacity.
In August, the average number of inmates per day was 1,009, 98 percent capacity. For fiscal 2011, the county housed an average of 403 out-of-county inmates per day.
The sheriff's office tracks daily boarding numbers separated by county. Those numbers fluctuate daily.
On Oct. 6, Fulton County was housing 256 inmates in the Hall County Jail. Forsyth County that day was housing 122.
Forsyth County Maj. Tom Wilson said the most of its boarded-out inmates are housed in Hall because of its proximity.
"It's right next door," he said. "For now, they've got the space to accommodate our inmates."
The cost of transportation
Other counties, though, are not as close. Norton argued that Hall should follow other counties' contracts and require that the county responsible for an inmate provide transportation.
"I am aware that there are times where if a Fulton County prisoner has to go back to Fulton County to appear before a judge, we may take that prisoner back to them and go pick him back up or, in some cases, wait for him," Norton said. "That certainly doesn't cover the full $36 worth of cost."
A Hall County corrections bus travels daily between the various counties whose inmates are housed here. While Cronic says occasionally an incident requires a single prisoner to be transported, those costs are added to the program's total operating costs.
Oconee County houses some Fulton inmates and charges $30 per day per inmate, but Fulton is responsible for transporting them.
"Fulton County, they transported and did all of that themselves," Oconee County Chief Deputy Lee Weems said. "Basically, they brought them down here, delivered them to the door and when they wanted them they came and got them."
Depending on the terms of the contract, Oconee transports some out-of-county inmates while it holds other counties responsible for transportation. Oconee provides all transportation for Clarke County's board-in inmates. The contract requires Clarke to pay Oconee $35 per day per inmate.
"It's 11 miles from our jail to their jail, so it's not like we're having to haul them halfway across the state," Weems said.
Hall County transports its out-of-county inmates. Based on an average of two trips daily to Fulton and three weekly to Forsyth, Lemacks' study concludes that transportation costs total $124,185.
Another of Norton's concerns is trouble caused by out-of-county inmates.
Hall County is not responsible for the medical costs of other counties' inmates. Norton, though, is concerned about costs to prosecute such inmates after those charges are filed in Hall County.
"If they have an offense at the jail - whether it's a prisoner, or with a guard, or tearing up equipment - then we hire a public defender at Hall County taxpayers' expense," Norton said.
Yet few out-of-county inmates have faced such charges while housed in Hall. Thus far in 2011, no Fulton County inmates have incurred additional charges while in Hall; 10 faced such charges in 2010.
When they are charged, inmates are required to pay restitution for costs incurred by Hall County to prosecute them.
Damage caused by out-of-county inmates also is minimal.
The Times acquired documents detailing all repairs at the Hall County Jail for five random months between June 2010 and March 2011. Only eight of 150 repairs were caused by inmates, but no records are kept detailing whether they were from Hall or elsewhere.
Inmates pay for damages
Each prisoner has a deposit account at the jail that includes money they had when booked, as well as any finances deposited into the account while they are incarcerated.
Jail Commander Capt. Mark Bandy said any time an inmate is responsible for damages, that account is charged for the cost.
If the inmate can't pay, they will be in debt to the county. If they are booked into the jail another time with money on them, it goes to pay debts previously owed.
Norton also questioned whether all counties that house inmates in Hall are up-to-date on their payments. The Times obtained records of those accounts dating to 2008 and found all payments are current. The revenue goes into the county's general fund.
"It's distributed out to pay all the bills," Hall County Budget Manager Jeremy Perry said.
Norton also is concerned out-of-county inmates will degrade the jail faster.
"We're going to wear out those 406 or so beds over the next 20 years and the county is going to be asked 20 years from now to build a new jail," Norton said.
Cronic said that is an exaggeration.
"A jail is not like an office building," he said. "A jail is concrete and steel. This jail, 30 years from now, it's still going to be doing its job. Those things may translate to public buildings, office buildings, apartment buildings, but it's not the same type of construction and not the same type of wear and tear."
The sheriff's office is currently in negotiations with an independent third-party firm that is not associated any justice association to conduct another assessment of the program.