Representatives of Yellowstone, Carbon and Stillwater Counties have decided that they will essentially just ignore a letter from the Montana Department of Corrections telling them how they should bill for services at the Yellowstone County Detention Center. The agency's directive "flies in the face of the local Sheriff's authority and responsibilities," concluded the gathering of county commissioners, county attorneys and law enforcement representatives.
They concluded that the state agency has no authority over the agreements each county has made with Yellowstone County, and they will just continue to abide by the terms of those agreements, and let the Montana Department of Corrections do as it will.
The attorneys for each of the three counties agreed that they will coordinate letters to the Koch explaining their position.
Earlier this month, in a letter from Diana Koch, Chief General Counsel for the Department of Corrections, the state agency informed Red Lodge County Commissioners that they will no longer reimburse them for costs they incur when they transfer state prisoners to YCDF. The Department said that instead Yellowstone County will bill them directly.
"Her letter is wrong," said Yellowstone Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen, "It is unclear, and has no logic to it." He said that he will direct Sheriff Mike Lender, who was the only county official to receive a copy of the letter, to ignore it, and continue their contractual agreements with Stillwater and Carbon Counties. Stillwater County did not receive a copy of the letter although it was implied they would be impacted.
Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said that he doubted that this is a problem unique to these three counties. He suspects other counties are having the same encounters with the Department of Corrections and plans to place the issue on the agenda of the next meeting of the Montana Association of Counties. He also suggested having a "face to face meeting" with the State Attorney General Steve Bullock.
Carbon County Commissioner John Prinkki said that in speaking with Koch, he was told that Yellowstone County was "on board" with the change. But, such is far from true. Yellowstone County is not happy with state reimbursements which do not pay for capital expense costs – those cost associated with wear and tear on the facility.
What the state will pay a detention facility is controlled by a state law which precludes payment for capital expense costs. Because of that, the state has long had a different reimbursement rate than that charged to other governmental entities by YCDF. The state pays $58.40 per prisoner per day compared to $70 that is in their agreements with Carbon and Stillwater Counties. And, even at that Prinkki conceded that Yellowstone County should probably be charging over $90 a day per prisoner, if they were to reflect all their costs. That's what Carbon County would be paying if they had to build their own jail, which they don't want to have to do, according to Prinkki.
"This is not in the best interest of Carbon County," said Prinkki, "Yellowstone County doesn't have to accept our prisoners." Without the agreement with Yellowstone County, his county would have to build a $10 – 15 million facility, he said.
Each county has an agreement with YCDF reserving a certain number of beds. When they are utilized to accommodate prisoners sent from that county on behalf of a state agency – such as the Montana Highway Patrol -- the state has historically reimbursed that county for what ever they are charged by YCDF. The change being pursued by Koch is an attempt to reduce that cost to the lower per diem rate that the state enjoys when billed directly.
"In some ways they are encouraging over capacity," said Capt. Dennis McCave, who oversees the YCDF operations.
One of the things the state isn't considering is that they do not have any reserved beds at YCDF and when its full, state prisoners will be the first turned away, said McCave. McCave conceded, however, that turning away prisoners is not something they are inclined to do, since their mission is to protect the public.
After a couple years of a declining prison population, however, the YCDF is once again overflowing, putting space at a premium. McCave said that the facility was built to ideally house 286 prisoners. Daily population currently runs between 410 -420, peaking at times at 430-440.
The state also basis its per diem rate, not on the jail's intended capacity, but upon the average prison population, which calculates to considerably less when they are almost double capacity.
What the state is really trying to do is force Yellowstone County into operating a regional detention center. Such was the general consensus of those at the meeting. "She is trying to divide us and make us into a regional jail," said Stillwater County Attorney John Petak, "We need to stay together."
Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy explained that the county had turned down the option of operating a regional facility a number of years ago when the state asked them to do so. He said that operating a regional facility mandated a lot of extras that increases the cost. "They tried to put pressure on us before," said Kennedy, "They said they would take their prisoners to the regionals but then they realized how much more expensive transportation costs were." The way YCDF is operated is more cost effective, he declared, adding that in dealing with this issue the counties needed to be "on the same piece of paper."
McCave said that the state assumes control of regional facilities. "You lose control," he said.
Director of Finance for Yellowstone County Scott Turner said that the state "will demand services and then not want to pay for them."
"They don't pay their bills," quipped County Commissioner Jim Reno.
"There is really no upside to a regional facility," commented John Pettick "This is a serious issue," he added.
Cascade and Missoula Counties operate regional facilities, as does Glendive.
"Local taxpayers should be angry that they have to subsidize the state," said Reno.
"You should be upset," said Kennedy, "because you are subsidizing the state, because they don't pay capital costs."
The issue is something that should be revisited by the state legislature, suggested McCave. He said that some years ago they took a proposal to the state legislature but it died in committee even though no one testified against it. It would have increased costs to the state.
Reno commented, "Our representatives seem to quit being our representatives about the time they hit Park City."
The Big Sky Business Journal
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Billings, MT 59103