Bed space, bodies and some unwanted competition may lead Hall County Sheriff’s officials to revise their initial revenue estimates for the new $54 million jail.
A little more than four months after the 1,027-bed jail opened, managers of the facility that was built with sales tax dollars are closer to their goal of filling 300 of those beds with out-of-county inmates who are boarded for a daily fee, but not without some unforeseen obstacles.
The jail was sold to voters in a 2004 local sales tax referendum on the need for a bigger facility that would keep Hall County from paying millions to house inmates in other counties, but it was designed with room for the future, and bed space that would make money from other counties while waiting for Hall County’s inmate population to catch up.
Officials initially estimated the fees from boarding inmates from other counties would bring in about $5 million a year to Hall County’s general fund, but two recent developments made meeting those goals "much more difficult," Sheriff Steve Cronic said.
One was an agreement county officials reached to lease the old 489-bed jail on Main Street to a private prison company without a no-compete clause, meaning the sheriff’s office and the private Corrections Corporation of America may compete to house the same, higher-fee federal inmates.
The other obstacle, Cronic said, was the decision by county officials last month to move 70 county inmates from the Hall County Correctional Institution to the Hall County Jail, cutting into bed space at the new jail that was factored in plans to board outside inmates.
The 240-bed Correctional Institution, located just a few hundred feet from the new jail on Barber Road, is owned and operated by the county and houses mostly state inmates used in prisoner work crews, bringing in $20 per day, per inmate, paid by the state Department of Corrections. Earlier this decade, when the old Hall County jail was in a space crunch crisis, county officials agreed to free up 80 beds at the Correctional Institution for county inmates. On March 27, at the request of Hall County Correctional Institution Warden Avery Niles, 70 county prisoners were moved back to the new jail.
Niles said vacating the beds at his facility will allow the county to charge the state $20 per day, per inmate to house more state prisoners.
The county inmates "weren’t generating any revenue for the Correctional Institution," Niles said.
Cronic said the move costs the jail operation about $1.3 million in projected revenue, while it would add about $500,000 in revenue to the Correctional Institution. All of the money, the sheriff noted, goes into Hall County’s general fund, regardless of the whether it comes from the jail or the Correctional Institution.
Hall County Commissioner Bobby Banks said he opposed the move for financial reasons.
"I was not in favor of moving (the county inmates) from the Correctional Institution, where the state’s going to pay $20 per day for state prisoners, and we’re going to put (the county inmates) back in the county jail, where we were going to lease beds out for $45 to $55," Banks said. "So you figure out how much the county will lose each day," Banks said.
By Cronic’s calculations, the loss could amount to $800,000 a year.
Hall County Commissioner Steve Gailey, who supported the move, did not return phone messages seeking comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
Niles, who as a former sheriff’s jail captain was part of the command staff that moved county inmates to the Correctional Institution, said those inmates don’t work as well on road crews as the longer-term state prisoners.
"Those laborers from the jail, a majority of them were here for a short period of stay, and that impacted work details," Niles said.
He said the county is working to contract with the state to fill the newly vacated beds with skilled labor inmates.
Cronic said he thinks local inmates who "victimized this community" should have to do some work on road crews, rather than have crews made up only of felons who committed their crimes elsewhere.
"It frees up bed space in the jail to generate revenue at a higher rate to offset taxes, and there’s the benefit of having our inmates out working instead of sitting around all the time," Cronic said.
Cronic said with the scheduled arrival Wednesday of 40 more inmates from Athens-Clarke County, the number of outside inmates being boarded at the jail was expected to reach 270. The sheriff said jail officials would have to be "creative" in order to house more outside inmates, creating visual barriers between female and male cell areas.
Cronic remains uncertain how the CCA’s occupation of the old jail will affect the boarding plan, though only 30 federal inmates have been boarded at the new jail so far, a number that was below expectations.
The sheriff acknowledged that recent developments could affect the initial revenue projections for the jail.
"It certainly could," Cronic said. "But we’re working aggressively and finding ways to extend the number of beds we have available to board."
"We took something from zero ... and at the end of the day (Wednesday), we’ll be bringing in revenues that will annualize right around $4 million a year, which is pretty impressive," Cronic said. "In spite of a couple of pretty big roadblocks that we’ve run into, we’re very much on target to do what we hoped to do."