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KATIE ZERR: Jail questions need answers before November vote

Are the taxpayers of Walworth County willing to shoulder the burden of a regional jail?
There is no question that something needs to be done at the Walworth County Jail. The facility is woefully inadequate and is a liability to the county. But is there really a need in our county for a 70 or more-bed facility to house prisoners from area counties?
There is a reason officials from other counties don’t want to bother with housing those who are arrested for breaking the law. It costs too much money.
The regional jail concept will benefit other counties, the U.S. Marshals Service and the BIA, but will it benefit the taxpayers of Walworth County?
Proponents of the regional jail concept say the revenue brought in from housing arrestees from other counties will pay for the facility.
The county currently charges $95 for housing out-of-county prisoners at the facility; $80 for BIA inmates and $65 a day for federal inmates. During the presentation to the public about the proposed jail project, it was stated that the cost to house an inmate for one day is just more than $9. For those of us with business management experience, this figure seems impossible.
The proposed facility, with updates to the Walworth County Courthouse, could cost taxpayers from $10 to $12 million by rumored estimates. This includes an elevator from the new jail to the courthouse to transport inmates to and from the courtroom.
Taxpayers have been attending public meetings at which the schematic of proposed facility and the cost to build the project are being presented to the public. All Walworth County taxpayers should attend one of the meetings.
These meetings are being held before the November election to allow taxpayers to see what the commission is asking them to spend their money on.
The concern for many taxpayers is not the cost of building, but the cost of operation and maintenance of this facility once it is built.
With the BIA and federal agencies refusing to pay more to house prisoners than they currently do, the burden of the cost of operation would fall on the taxpayers in Walworth County.
There is no guarantee that the revenue from housing prisoners will cover any extra operational cost for the larger facility. If inmate revenue doesn’t cover the cost of operating the facility, who will pay for that? The taxpayers of Walworth County.
There is no guaranteed up front money from other counties to help in the construction. There are no federal grants funding or funding from the BIA to help build the facility. There are promises of jail contracts for inmate housing, but if that is to cover the cost of the operation of this size of a facility, the cost to house inmates would have to be increased.
There have been several arguments against Walworth County building a regional jail, with the operational costs being the main concern. The claimed prisoner revenue for the past couple of years $615,640 in 2016 and $468,225 in 2015 are not profit numbers, but the revenue brought in from housing inmates. Operational costs for that same time period were not presented to the commission by the jail administration.
If those were profit numbers, other counties would be building jails.
Walworth County Auditor Becky Krein has told commissioners on several occasions that the cost of operation increases would be crushing to the county’s budget.
Where are we willing to cut back to ensure we can afford to operate and maintain a regional jail?
Are the roads in Walworth County in such good shape that we can cut into the highway department budget if the jail fund falls short? Are we going to cut funds to the Selby and Mobridge Ambulance Services or the fire departments? Are we willing to go out on a limb with regional jail facility and hope the jail can be operated within the set budget or will the constant turnover and new employee training costs overrun that budget?
Why not a smaller facility that will meet the needs of Walworth County and if there is room house other prisoners?
Can the commissioners guarantee the taxpayers of Walworth County will not have to foot the bill for a regional jail?
These are all questions that should be answered before we go to the polls in November to accept the burden of this new facility.
The one question that bothers this taxpayer is if there is so much inmate revenue for a good profit, why aren’t other counties willing to ask their taxpayers to build them a jail?
If jails were money-making ventures, other new jails would be built.
Commissioners need to present to the taxpayers of this county a cost versus revenue comparison so that we will be assured down the road that we are not asked to cut back on other services so we can support the regional jail we cannot afford.
– Katie Zerr –