Inmate meals fattened up sheriff's pay

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 28, 2007 - 11:36 PM

The breakfast service at the Hubbard County jail had captive customers and big profits before it ended, starting a legal ruckus.

PARK RAPIDS, MINN. - The for-profit breakfast service a sheriff ran in the jail here has left egg on a face or two, and the whiff, some say, of something other than bacon.

For eight years, according to public records, taxpayers were overcharged up to 100 percent for each breakfast served in the Hubbard County jail, and Sheriff Gary Mills captured all the profits without incident.

The practice, which officials called an archaic holdover from the days when many Minnesota sheriffs lived in their jails and their wives cooked for the inmates, finally ended last December, when the county started paying the company that was doing the jail's lunch and dinner to also provide breakfast.

Mills sued the county for lost income, and the county made a counterclaim for all of Mills' accumulated profits, saying it hasn't been legal for Minnesota sheriffs to make money feeding inmates for at least 30 years.

The case is set to go to trial next spring, but both sides said they recently reached a settlement that they'll ask the County Board to approve next month. Details are being withheld pending that approval. Mills said he'd "love to" comment further but won't because of the court case.

Though it may look like scam and eggs, Mills' attorney, Steven Fuller of Bemidji, argues that it's not:

"People have tried to make it sound like something evil, but this is the way it was done in many rural counties going back decades," he said. "One of the ways a county that liked their sheriff could pay him more was to give him something extra for providing meals."

Paying Minnesota sheriffs to feed prisoners "was a very common practice," Jim Franklin, head of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, said in an e-mail. He added that as counties stopped this practice, many opted to increase their sheriff's salary.

Breakfast 'buyout'

It's unclear how much Mills netted annually from charging the county up to $2 for breakfasts that he arranged -- according a document prepared by County Attorney Donovan Dearstyne -- for 50 cents to a dollar each.

But there's a ballpark indicator: When commissioners cut out Mills as the middle man, they also approved a $1,000 monthly "stipend" for him as long as he remained sheriff, to offset his loss.

The food service's fee represented such a savings that even after paying Mills' stipend, taxpayers would still come out ahead, commissioners said then.

Commissioner Dick Devine said the board had mistakenly believed Mills had the right to provide the breakfasts. "It was a 5-0 vote to buy out his contract," he said. "That's what we felt we had to do to make the switchover."

At the same meeting, board members approved a cost-of-living adjustment to Mills' salary, bringing it to $73,721 -- about average in north-central Minnesota. With the stipend, his annual compensation was almost $86,000.

But after two lame-duck commissioners were replaced in January, members began questioning the stipend and were joined by other county officials.

During one meeting, according to the Park Rapids Enterprise, County Coordinator Jack Paul said: "I don't understand how we can pay someone for doing nothing," and newly seated Commissioner Donald Carlson remarked: "This is not transparent enough in today's society. Our constituents would be unhappy with this."

Citing the suit, Carlson declined to comment for this story, and Paul could not be reached.

The county sought legal advice, and Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Kenneth Raschke Jr. wrote in April that "we are not aware of any statutory authority for payment to the sheriff of $2 per prisoner for providing meals that cost between $.50 and $1."

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