Rich federal contract gets in way of cost-saving jail merger

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2013 - 3:40 PM

Scott and Carver counties abandon talks after the issue with federal dollars arises.

 

The fear of a huge loss of income from housing federal inmates for a fat fee is getting in the way of an attempt to save the taxpayers of Scott and Carver counties millions of dollars in the years to come.

But that blockage is in turn raising questions about the federal government’s procedures. If federal taxpayers could be getting a much better deal in jailing immigration violators, then why aren’t they?

“That’s not an easy or a fast one to answer, and I’m not even sure it would come from this office as opposed to Washington,” said Shawn Neubauer, a local spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

The difference between keeping or losing the ICE contract is massive, especially over time.

If the revenue stays with Carver, officials say, they expect to save $1.1 million a year from merging jail operations.

But if the contract slips from their grasp and goes elsewhere? Just $300,000 a year.

A savings in the $300,000 range still seems to Scott County Board Chairman Tom Wolf to be worth pursuing.

“Over 10 years,” he said, “that’s $3 million, and that’s a big number.”

But it was apparent during a joint meeting of the two boards last week that the Carver contingent is wary and not convinced those numbers will hold up over time.

“The numbers don’t look near as good as when we started,” said Carver Board Chairman Tim Lynch. “They looked really good out of the gate, but now — not as good.”

The problem each side seeks to address is that both built sizable jails at a time when crime and population growth trends were much different from what they are today.

“It’s a dangerous game to predict these things,” said Carver’s administrator, Dave Hemze. “Most recent jails have been overbuilt.”

Scott still has a part of its jail that has never opened since the facility was completed in 2005. It has been clear in the years since that commissioners thought they could, like Carver, turn their jail into a profit center by housing federal inmates. But that hasn’t happened.

In recent months, a lot of staff time has been put into the gnarly question of whether it would save money, or just cause lots of problems, to merge operations of the two, most likely transferring most inmates to Scott.

Although there are other sticking points, the main one seems to be the concern over losing the ICE revenue stream that’s helping Carver manage its oversupply of cells.

The deal is between Carver and the feds, officials said, and there’s no guarantee that bringing Scott into the equation would result in the contract’s continuing at all, much less at current rates of reimbursement.

Scott officials hint that Carver is doing very, very well in an environment in which lots of jails would be eager to offer better deals.

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