Updated Wed, Oct 2, 2013 12:54 pm
In a move that will affect the other member counties of the Southeast Ohio Regional Jail, Athens County decreased the amount of beds they will pay for at the jail by 10. The difference will most likely fall on other counties to fill the gap if the measure continues into the new year, officials said.
"We pay $425,000 a year for our part in the jail," said Vinton County Commissioner Jerry Zinn. "When you have a $3 million budget, it's hard to make a change to compensate for that."
The Southeast Ohio Regional Jail Commission narrowly approved the measure last week decreasing the number of male beds Athens County pays from from 70 to 60, saving the county about $53,000. Athens County Commissioner Charlie Adkins made the motion in an attempt to save the county money and he described it as a last-ditch effort to keep the county a part of the regional jail.
“If I hadn’t got this vote, my plan was to suggest to the other commissioners that we pull out of the jail completely,” Adkins said. “So I’m glad we came to this solution instead.”
The commission voted 3-2 to take the amount of beds Athens is contracted to pay for, at a rate of $58 a day. Morgan County’s Sheriff Thomas Jenkins abstained from the vote.
Athens County will save about $53,000 for the last three months of the year with the decrease, according to Adkins. The board only authorized the reduction of 10 contracted beds for three months.
The jail will be monitoring the next three months to see what they will need to do in next year's budget to cover the costs.
"It's kind of on us for now," said SEORJ Warden Jeremy Tolson. "Over these next three months we're just going to have to look at the numbers and keep in mind the budget for next year."
Tolson said Athens County beds were clearly under-utilized in 2012.
Each of the five member counties of the jail pays for a certain number of beds each month. They all pay a flat rate whether or not the beds are being used. Remaining space is billed as overage beds that can be used by the counties at the regular rate or by entities outside of the membership at a higher rate.
Athens County paid more than $420,000 for beds not used in 2012, according to previous Athens Messenger reporting.
“We’re paying for empty beds ... and we’re subsidizing the cost of the regional jail,” Adkins said. “I want to try to keep the money in Athens instead.”
Athens County Sheriff Patrick Kelly voted for the measure at the meeting, but said he can see both sides of the issue.
“The appropriation (at the jail) has always been disproportionate,” Kelly said. “But if we have to move to another facility we have to get new transport officers, use our equipment to get them there. Gas prices are a factor, too. We may pay more in the long run.”
But paying for the unused bed space was not feasible, Kelly said. In his opinion, more research needs to be done for other options.
Kelly also said he is waiting to see the results of a study being conducted by a group of Ohio University economics students. The students met with county officials and Warden Tolson on Monday to discuss the project.
The idea was brought to Professor Emeritus of Economics Richard Vedder by Adkins, who wanted the students to analyze the jail’s finances because he felt Athens County was being treated unfairly, he told The Messenger on Monday.
“Other counties, I feel like, if they have to pay and we can pay instead, they would rather us pay,” Adkins said after the commission vote Wednesday.
Vinton County will be watching what happens in the next three months, to see what they will need to do to cover the per diem costs — the amount the county pays per inmate per day to the jail — if they go up.
"If our per diem goes up, naturally that's going to be a hardship," Zinn said.
Hocking, Morgan, Perry and Vinton Counties are the other members of the jail. They also have been paying for unused beds, but to a much lesser degree.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Tolson agreed that Athens County was paying more than its share, but also said the loss will have to be covered to keep the jail going. He also said there is no guarantee that any other counties will want to sign contracts for beds with the jail.
“If we can’t get a contract with other counties, we don’t have a guarantee of the money coming in,” Tolson said.
Attempts were made to bring Meigs County into the regional jail group, Tolson told the group Wednesday, but he said he didn’t think the county would be joining.