Months away from the completion of a new jail years in the making, officials in Houston County have posed an extraordinary question: Should they even open it?

Even though it cost tens of millions of dollars, letting it sit empty would save the money it would cost to staff it. And these days, the extra cells aren't exactly in demand, in Houston County or in plenty of other places. Falling crime rates and a jail-building boom coincided to produce an unprecedented surplus of jail beds in many of the state's counties.

"You wouldn't open a motel expecting 50 percent occupancy or less," said Jack Miller, chairman of the board of commissioners in the far southeastern Minnesota county.

His statement was largely rhetorical, and the county board eventually decided in a split vote to open it as planned, but the problem has been slowly dawning on county boards and jail administrators over the past two years, and new numbers are highlighting just how bad the situation is.

After dismissing old data as unreliable, the state of Minnesota is now formally acknowledging the full extent of the problem. More than 3,000 cells stand empty on a given day, the new figures show -- the equivalent of roughly the 70 smallest facilities of about 90 statewide.

That new clarity is allowing for a much better grasp of how costs per inmate are rising. In Scott County, for instance, with its drooping inmate counts, costs per inmate per day have jumped from $115 to $159 over the past two years, and the county is about to offer early retirement to jailers.

The early atmosphere of denial is fading as counties strive to deal with the new reality. Swift County talked openly of closing its jail. Houston is one of 12 Minnesota counties from just south of St. Paul all the way to the Iowa border that are banding together to try and figure out how cooperation might help ease the growing financial burden.

Officials of those counties have been gathering regularly in Red Wing this spring in what Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin is calling an effort to "turn over every stone and look under every leaf to find out if there's a better way to do this."

Ideas include sharing contracts for supplies, or even inmates and transportation costs, to allow counties to close parts of their jails.

The sharpest irony of all is that taxpayers rarely want to pay for nicer new jails for criminals. As Jeff Spartz, formerly a Hennepin commissioner and now the head of the state's association of counties, dryly puts it: "Funding a jail is not highly appreciated."

It's a mess with many causes, including a state-led campaign to modernize and enlarge many decrepit 19th-century jails across the state and the belief of many county commissioners years ago that they could haul in a profit from boarding other peoples' prisoners if they added a few extra cells.

It's also a mess with few easy solutions. Counties have to consider court practices, state and local budgets and fluctuating crime rates. Swift, for instance, after being down to just one inmate at one point last year, is now shipping them off to neighboring counties because it's too full. "There's no way I wanted to close down," said Sheriff John Holtz, "and right now we're at almost 200 percent of capacity."

The southeastern Minnesota group is pondering saving money with joint contracts for everything from food to prisoner uniforms. It's also entertaining the idea of specialized regional facilities: If all the women inmates were sent to one jail, each county could shut down its own under-utilized and less-efficient units.

Good news is bad news

At the root of the issue: Dozens of counties have either built new facilities in recent years, increased the capacity of the ones they have, or both. The total statewide increase since 2003 amounts to roughly 2,000 beds, at precisely the same time when crime and arrests have -- mysteriously and unaccountably, some criminologists say -- plummeted in parallel with similar drops all across the country.

Officials in Goodhue County, where the county seat is Red Wing, rallied southeastern Minnesota to the extra capacity crisis when they saw that their own jail, opened in 2000, was just a third full.

"That, from a crime standpoint, should be good," said Scott Arneson, county administrator. But financially, not so hot.

Food and health care costs often decline along with inmate populations -- although Anoka County, for instance, has seen medical costs climb despite lower numbers -- but so does revenue generated by prisoners through work release programs or commissary purchases.

Other expenses such as utilities, maintenance and, most of all, staff, grow more irksome as the number of inmates drops. Having just a couple women prisoners forces many jails to keep pods designed for up to 60 inmates open and staffed.

It's a concern across the state, but the pain is especially acute in rural and suburban counties that have recently expanded their jails.

The winners include Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows, who runs a mostly full jail and benefits from the glut of cells when looking for places to board prisoners. He rents space for $30 less per inmate per day than he did a couple years ago.

"Trying to predict a jail population is akin to trying to predict the stock market," he said. "We've done a good job there."

Swift County Sheriff Holtz, on the other hand, notes that there's been severe disruption in counties with woefully short numbers. Asked whether he's getting bargain deals to ship inmates to other counties, he replied:

"I wouldn't say that, but they could be lowering rates just to keep their doors open. I've heard of counties that have let officers go, and have lost as many as 10 of them."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056 David Peterson • 952-882-9023