Middletown city officials are already crunching numbers and reviewing operations in an effort to find ways to save taxpayer dollars as they begin the budgeting process for the coming year.
One of the goals of city administration is to reduce public safety spending from the general fund from 72 percent to 60 percent over a five-year period. Meeting that goal is going to require a continual review of how public safety services are delivered, officials say, which could mean taking a closer look at the city jail and dispatch center.
The city could save as much as $2.2 million dollars by closing its jail and transferring its dispatch operations to either Butler or Warren counties. While those moves could save Middletown some money — some officials say that amount wouldn’t be the entire $2.2 million — they could create more problems than they solve.
Middletown is one of only five cities in Ohio to have a full-service jail. The vast majority of lock-ups in Ohio are run by counties. Some cities, villages or townships across the state have temporary holding facilities where they can detain offenders for anywhere from six to 12 hours.
Middletown spends a little over $1 million a year to operate the city jail, and those who support the continued existence of the facility say it is a needed deterrent to crime.
Middletown Municipal Judge Mark Wall said closing the Middletown City Jail would cost the city more in the long-term. Wall said people arrested by police know they could be going to jail and end up in his courtroom to face possible consequences. It is one of the advantages Middletown has over other area cities such as Hamilton, he said.
“I don’t see any cost benefit for closing the jail, and I see this as a detriment to the community,” Wall said.
Middletown police Chief Rodney Muterspaw said budget discussions about closing the jail and/or the communications center happen every few years. He said closing the jail would become a logistical challenge for the court and local law enforcement who utilize it.
Some potential costs to closing the jail could include adding transport officers and vans to shuttle prisoners from the county jail to the municipal court, Muterspaw said. The city jail, which doesn’t double or triple bunk inmates, houses an average of 60 to 70 prisoners a day, Muterspaw said.
“It’s convenient to have a jail here,” he said. “No one wants to come down here.”
Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan said continuing to operate a full-service jail and a communications center is something for the city administration to look at. But he cautioned that it would not be a straight-on savings of $2 million to $3 million.
“We’re always looking for ways to save money, and if we can get those services through neighboring communities, that would be something to look at and consider,” the mayor said. “It’s a question of service and costs and trying to balance both.”
Councilman Dan Picard said the jail and dispatch center have been actively looked at and discussed during budget time each of the six years he has been on council. To him, it’s “not a pressing issue.”
“If it was financially beneficial to the city, it needs to be considered,” Picard said. “But it has to have significant savings for me to go along with it.”
City Manager Doug Adkins has said that the national average of city spending for public safety is about 57 percent of its operating budget. If the city could reduce its public safety spending to 60 percent of the general fund, that could free up more than $3.57 million that could be used for other needs such as roads, sewers and other aging infrastructure, Adkins said.
Several communities around the state have closed jails and consolidated or outsourced dispatching, Adkins said. Hamilton has not operated a city jail in decades and it transferred its dispatching center to the Butler County Sheriff’s Office in 2013.
Hamilton police Chief Craig Bucheit said the cost savings of the dispatch center has come in close to $700,000 in the last two years alone.
“The new dispatch center has fielded tens of thousands of calls since the consolidation, and for the average citizen calling 911, the transition has been seamless,” Bucheit said.
Geography could be a complicating factor for Middletown in closing the jail or transferring the dispatch center. The city straddles both Butler and Warren counties.
“If we give up dispatch and/or the jail, do we have two separate dispatches and jails depending on where the call originated, or does one entity cross into another county to cover all of Middletown?” Adkins said. “How do we pay for that? Do we transport jail defendants to both Warren and Butler county jails and back? There are local court questions as to the availability and cost of video arraignment.”
Adkins also said any change with operating the jail may also have an impact on how Middletown Municipal Court operates and could require changes in when court is in session, with the judge’s permission, or how it handles bail/bonds and probation. He said it could also impact changes in court costs as well as transportation and technology costs.
“We will be addressing all of these issues over time, but with multiple jurisdictions and/or departments involved, it will be a slow and methodical review and final recommendation to City Council,” Adkins said. “We have to get it right the first time.
“Once the dispatch and/or jail are transferred, it is likely a permanent move. We need to make sure we understand the financial and operational effects of such a change and too many of the variables can’t be accurately quantified at this time,” he said.
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