FAIRPLAY, Colo. — Jails are like schools in at least one way. For a school, more students mean more money, and for a jail, more inmates mean more money.
The jail population in Park County, Colo., started dropping, and that left Sheriff Tom McGraw with a problem.
“I call it a problem," McGraw said. "It might be on some people’s minds, it might be a good thing that we don’t have as many inmates, but from a standpoint of the jail itself, we don’t have those inmates to make the money that used to be made at this facility.”
Park County Jail is practically empty. At one time, McGraw said the jail housed more than 200 inmates. On Thursday, there were just 31 inmates at the jail.
The jail relies on money it makes housing inmates from other jurisdictions. McGraw said the sheriff's office charges $45 per day to take care of another county's inmate. They'll charge the state more to house a prisoner from the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC).
“Last year, I think we made almost half a million dollars on Department of Corrections inmates, and this year we made $32,000," McGraw said.
The sheriff blamed DOC for sending over fewer inmates and judges for being more lenient on bonds.
"There are not that many inmates available, and that’s something that’s being seen across the state of Colorado," McGraw said.
Empty cells are a good thing, unless it's costing you like it is a county sheriff.
"The county, they want to cut that budget," McGraw said. "They want to cut it tremendously.”
Park County commissioners are considering cutting the roughly $2 million jail budget by anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000.
“We don’t have the money available to fund it at the level that the sheriff would like to have it," said Commissioner Dick Elsner.
Elsner, who's served three years as a county commissioner, said figuring out the county budget is the toughest part of the job.
“This is probably the most difficult year since I’ve been elected," Elsner said.
The Park County Sheriff's Office staffs 18 deputies at the jail. McGraw said he can't stand to lose one of those deputies.
“I have to be responsible for the safety of my people and cutting the budget and cutting positions is a dangerous thing to do," he said.
If cuts to the jail are as significant as commissioners are discussing, McGraw said he'd consider doing away with animal control and school resource officers.
“Those are things that very possibly might go, you know, in order to make up for budget loss in the jail," he said.
The sheriff's office employs three school resource officers and was budgeted in 2019 to staff three animal control officers. There are currently only two positions filled.
Elsner suggested the sheriff consider keeping the two animal control officers and not filling the third opening in 2020.
Commissioners won't finalize the county budget until Dec. 19.
“It’s difficult," Elsner said. "I understand the sheriff’s position.”
For now, a practically empty jail is full of budget uncertainty.
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