Article published July 19, 2008
County looks at billing cities for use of jailBy Jason Spencer
Spartanburg County Council will hear a proposal Monday that would allow the county jail to begin billing cities and towns for housing inmates charged with municipal offenses. Whether the council will listen remains to be seen.
The idea, proposed by Councilman O'Neal Mintz, has questionable support among his colleagues - some are outright against it - but it is based on a 10-year-old contract between the county and city of Spartanburg that was never enforced because of political reasons.
That contract calls for the city to pay $45.65 per inmate per day after seven days. It was put in place to give teeth to state law, which requires municipal inmates to be tried within seven days, but it doesn't include any penalties if they're not.
Mintz hopes to at least get enough votes Monday to direct administrators to study the idea and come back in a month with recommendations on how to proceed. Even though those most familiar with the jail say the topic is fair game - Sheriff Chuck Wright supports the idea, and jail Director Larry Powers and Solicitor Trey Gowdy both say it's a conversation worth having - other officials don't want to dwell on the matter, worried that it might damage relations between the county and the incorporated areas within it.
The argument against such an arrangement typically involves double taxation, too, though the courts have ruled that counties do not have an obligation to house municipal inmates for free.
"It's easy for the state to pass the buck on to us, but I don't want to be the one to pass the buck on to our municipalities," Council Chairman Jeff Horton said. "They're as cash-strapped as the county is."
Based on Greenville systemMintz has eased off his original plan, which was to charge cities and towns "from day one" for holding inmates. He based the initial idea on the system Greenville County has in place, in which cities and towns are charged an hourly rate for each inmate held on municipal offenses, such as disorderly conduct - not more serious offenses, which are tried in General Sessions Court, such as criminal domestic violence.
Now, Mintz says simply charging municipalities that break the seven-day rule would be enough. It would put pressure on the judicial system to move municipal inmates through in a timely manner - freeing up valuable bed space - and put pressure on the jail to keep better track of municipal inmates approaching the seven-day deadline, he said.
"I'd like to see them (county administrators) take it under advisement for a month," Mintz said. "You don't have to charge the municipalities a dime to save Spartanburg County a half-million dollars a year."
He later added: "With the limited amount of space we've got - and we're about to spend possibly upward of $47 million - we, as a council, should be looking for any way we can to save space."
Perhaps the latter point is the more important one.
Debate has lasted decadesMonday's debate - or lack of one, depending on how things go - comes at a critical time.
The county has spent years trying to solve the problem of jail overcrowding, and it is struggling to find ways to get the most bed space for the least amount of money. The jail expansion plan on the table will cost about $46.1 million, and it would bring the jail's capacity to 1,136 - likely just enough beds to put it at capacity by the time it is built.
Last month, Horton suggested that some or all of his colleagues visit dormitory-style and modular buildings used to hold inmates in other places. Administrators have looked into travel costs for booking such a trip to a couple of counties in Florida, but no such fact-finding trip has been scheduled yet.
"The magnitude of the investment is causing everyone to move more cautiously, and therefore more slowly," Assistant County Administrator Chris Story said. "It's a bitter pill to swallow, no matter our revenue structure."
Jail overcrowding, and the structural soundness of the buildings that house inmates, have been a problem in this county (and others) arguably for the past 50 years. When a "modern" jail opened in Spartanburg County in 1958, a legislative committee determined less than three years later that it was structurally obsolete.
Fast forward to 2007, when the idea of using modular or pre-fabricated buildings surfaced as a cost-saving measure in jail expansion. Powers said then that such buildings would not stand up to the test of time, but the same conversation is playing out again.
"The council has been very supportive of me," Powers said Thursday. "The frustrating thing is when you get ready to make a decision, people outside of the council who are looking to make a financial gain off the deal come in and offer cheaper alternatives, and then we've got to start the discussion over again."
One line of thinking among council members is that, say, a modular building would provide a short-term solution and buy the county time to build a better jail for the long term.
The state Department of Corrections annually audits the county jail and routinely cites overcrowding as an issue that needs to be addressed, Powers said. Neither the state nor the county on Thursday could provide a copy of the most recent audit.
A February 2005 letter from Blake Taylor, the Correction Department's division director of compliance, standards and inspections, called on the county to alleviate overcrowding and submit a timetable for completing that - a letter that revived the overcrowding debate in earnest.
Since then, the county has hired more staff for the solicitor's office, allowed the county's master-in-equity to hold probation hearings and even expanded the home detention program. But the jail handles about twice as many inmates on a daily basis as it is equipped to to handle, usually holding 800 to 1,000 inmates at any given time.
"We cannot build jails big enough and quick enough to solve the problem," Councilman Dale Culbreth said. "We're going to have to go back to our young people, change the environment for them the best we can, and hope that bodes well for the future."
Small stepsTo that end, County Council in June, without being asked, voted to give $10,000 each to the Upstate Family Resource Center and the Middle Tyger Community Center after representatives of each talked about efforts to combat teen pregnancy.
The thinking was that reducing the teen pregnancy rate would reduce the number of children growing up in poverty or single-parent homes, thereby increasing the chance those children would avoid falling into a life of crime.
Mintz believes his idea would be one more small step the county could take toward combating the larger problem.
Culbreth said he looks forward to discussing it with the seven mayors in his district in the near future.
"I'm looking at this long-range. I don't want to just put a Band-Aid on a problem," Culbreth said. "It's not going to all be building a bigger facility. I applaud O'Neal for digging into this. As far as I'm concerned, he might have touched on a way to take some of the expense off the county taxpayers.
"The issue I'm seeing here, some of the people the municipalities are bringing to the jail, maybe they should be more responsible to seeing these people get through the system in the right amount of time."
Even if the county builds a jail big enough to accommodate 1,500 inmates - the ideal size in Powers' mind - the jail director says all the other measures the county has enacted to combat overcrowding must remain in place or else the problem will surface again, sooner rather than later.