Changes suggested for Butler County jail facilities: Could 3 become 1?

The Butler County sheriff may reopen the Court Street Jail in Hamilton to help with region’s jail space crunch. GREG LYNCH/STAFF
The Butler County sheriff may reopen the Court Street Jail in Hamilton to help with region’s jail space crunch. GREG LYNCH/STAFF

The Butler County Sheriff’s Office has the largest general fund budget by far, and the county commissioners are seeking ways to offset the proposed $44 million cost for next year.

Sheriff Richard Jones is proposing to spend $44 million from the general fund, a $3.7 million increase over this year’s budget. The proposed increase is $13.5 million more than was actually spent last year, when the county commissioners required deep budget cuts due to the pandemic.

Including all non-general fund expenses, like those from grants and outside income including the $4 million contract for the Liberty Twp. sheriff’s outpost, the total projected budget is about $50 million. The 2022 budget shows revenues totaling nearly $20 million, and half of that comes from boarding prisoners from other jurisdictions. He also submitted a five-year capital improvement wish list that amounts to almost $10 million.

During his budget hearing last week, Jones told the commissioners the budget is justified and necessary because “this will bring us up to even.”

“We’ve submitted our budget and that’s bare bones,” Jones said. “We’ve taken cuts and we’ve never gotten those cuts back. We’ve helped the county just like all the other office holders have to get to where we’re in the plus, not in the negative... We can’t make it without the money that keeps our organization running and functioning.”

All six union contracts are up for negotiation next year, which added to a higher proposed budget, and sheriff’s officials are trying to get staffing up to full capacity. There are about 16 vacancies, and officials want to get to 408 full-time positions next year.

Commissioner Don Dixon offered ideas for offsetting expenses, including consolidating the three jails, raising the daily rate the office charges to other jurisdictions and charging inmates.

The sheriff’s office maintains the main jail on Hanover Street in Hamilton, the minimum security Resolutions facility and the old Court Street Jail, which reopened several years ago when the state mandated counties house low-level felons. The facilities can hold about 1,170 inmates.

“It seems like at some point in time it’s going to be more cost effective to have everybody in one place,” Dixon said.

ExploreButler County officials start honing $108.4 million general fund budget

Jones said if the office closed the Court Street facility, revenues could be halved because that’s where many of the outside inmates that bring charges are held.

The sheriff’s office used to house prisoners for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but it canceled that contract over the summer.

“We fired them before they fired us,” Jones said. “But we’ve made that up in prisoner revenue.”

There is room at the main campus to add two more jail pods, and Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer told the Journal-News each new pod could hold about 100 inmates. A very rough estimate on an addition would be $10 million, based on a $6.6 million grant they applied for with the state to expand the medical pod.

The total general fund budget proposed for next year is $108 million and revenues are expected to reach $116 million with an ending cash balance of $80 million. The commissioners also have $75 million in federal rescue funds to allocate.

County Administrator Judi Boyko penciled in $15 million in capital reserves and $5 million for the annual capital improvement plan. She said jail consolidation will be addressed as part of the county’s space utilization analysis and there could be some funds available to address the jail situation.

Dixon’s other money-making ideas don’t appear to be feasible. Dwyer said they just raised the per diem rate for housing other prisoners.

“I don’t think it’s relevant to do it right now,” Dwyer told the Journal-News. “It just was done within the last few years and I don’t think anything has significantly changed with cost that would cause us to relook at that.”

As for charging prisoners, the county was sued by a Liberty Twp. jail inmate in 2001 over its “Pay-For-Stay” practice of charging prisoners a $30 booking fee to offset costs. He alleged it was unconstitutional because it was too hard to get the money back if they are found not guilty. The county settled the class action suit for $165,000.

“Paying your debt to society doesn’t mean the same to some people,” Dwyer said, noting they do have a $20 fee for convicted inmates but it is nearly impossible to collect because many people are indigent.

Dixon isn’t quite ready to drop the issue, noting inmates are housed, fed, receive medical treatment and other services and it shouldn’t all be on the taxpayers.

“You know all of them aren’t indigent, I think we should look at back charging them for a portion of it anyway,” Dixon said. “We’ll have to run that by the prosecutor, but it almost makes too much sense to work.”

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