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January 13, 2016

CAPTION: The Livingston County Commissioners are having trouble offsetting a $60,000 expense in the 2016 budget caused by Daviess-Dekalb Jail increasing its daily prisoner rate. Not only is the daily prisoner rate rising, but the number of Livingston County inmates is also increasing. Commissioners will be meeting with Sheriff Steve Cox and Prosecuting Attorney Adam Warren to discuss ways to cut this inmate increase.

C-T Photo / Beth Cox

Increasing jail costs are causing Livingston County's already tight budget to be nearly unmanageable. Livingston County Presiding Commissioner Ed Douglas said there are almost no reserves and very little flexibility in the budget to handle needs and changing circumstances. Therefore, when the commissioners were informed the Daviess-Dekalb Regional Jail would increase its daily prisoner rate 33 percent, Douglas said they could not possibly afford it. These "unforseen circumstances" make a "difficult budget process even tougher," Douglas said.

The daily prisoner rate has remained the same for several years; however, about a month ago, the commissioners were informed the Daviess-Dekalb Jail would increase that rate from $30 per day (plus one or two dollars a day for medical services) to $40 per day. Jail expense was the single biggest item budgeted for last year at the $30 per day rate, totaling $475,000 based on an expected 43 prisoners per day intake, according to Douglas. Based on the same prisoner intake and increased rate, the county's jail expenses will be raised $142,500 from last year.

Though Douglas believes past commissions did a terrific job of managing limited resources effectively, changing circumstances will not allow that going forward. Therefore, the commissioners are making preliminary plans to present to voters an increase in the county's sales tax rate in the spring of 2017 so these increasing jail costs and other county needs can be budgeted for correctly. This will allow the commission to build a reserve fund over time, make up for the cost deficit of the growing 911-emergency management based on declining phone land line revenue, and improve county roads that are in need in much of the county. The county's sales tax rate produces the vast majority of the county's income (other than grants and pass-through funds), and with the $1,500,000 that sales tax generates, it is becoming increasingly challenging to fund all the county offices, the county's Road and Bridge Crew and the Sherriff's Office.

"I believe our county commissioners have done an admirable job of managing expenses in the past but we have run out of the ability to do that going forward and will need to present to voters a plan to give us the needed resources to run the county efficiently and effectively in the future," Douglas said. The commission analyzed and compared Livingston County's budget with surrounding counties' budgets this year, as they are in the midst of working through the county's 2016 budget plan, and discovered that Livingston County's sales tax rate is much smaller than surrounding counties. According to Douglas, while Daviess County has a 2.5 percent sales tax rate, Caldwell County has a 2 percent, Linn County has a 2 percent, Grundy County has a 1.5 percent and Carroll County has a 1.25 percent sales tax rate; Livingston County's rate is 0.75 percent. In addition to Livingston County's sales tax rate being low, the same surrounding counties just mentioned also have a five to 15 times higher real estate tax rate as Livingston County. "The result is that our county is severely underfunded," Douglas said. While Grundy County and Linn County has nearly $2 million in reserves, Livingston County has next to none due to this underfunding.

"Our position of not having reserves is not a way to run a county properly," Douglas said. Because of the increased daily prisoner rate, the Livingston County Commission went to Plattsburg to meet with the Daviess-DeKalb Regional Jail Board to explain the financial situation the county is in, and the plan to present a sales tax increase next spring. The jail board recognized Livingston County's dire financial situation and took the possible sales tax increase in 2017 into consideration and ultimately agreed to raise Livingston County's rate next year to $34 per day instead of $40 until the county has an opportunity to increase its revenue in 2017. With the $34 per day rate, the yearly cost will be raised $60,000 instead of $142,500. Douglas said the county can't even really afford the $60,000 extra per year, but they will have to "make do."

However, in addition to the prisoner rate increasing, the prisoner intake rate is also increasing, causing more of a financial issue for the county. The Livingston County Jail was closed several years ago (a joint decision by the commission and the sheriff) due to a growing jail population that exceeded its capacity and also because of significant and extensive structural repair needs and staffing and safety issues. Douglas said the commission considered a new jail but it was estimated to cost upwards of $8 million dollars which was not affordable at that time or will be in the near future.

Douglas said the commission will be having meetings soon with the county's prosecuting attorney, Adam Warren, and the Livingston County Sherriff Steve Cox to try and come up with creative solutions to cut inmate jail population down to offset the extra $60,000 the county is planning to spend. "We hope to have a pretty good idea (of how to offset the $60,000) before the budget is finalized," Douglas said. Cox said the county's law enforcement does an excellent job of looking at the "who, what, when and where" of a crime, but may have to also start looking at "why" a crime was committed and start analyzing the underlying issues of a crime to cut down on prisoner intake. "Sometimes, you can do more damage by incarcerating because they often lose their jobs, house, etcetera, by being in jail which puts them in a bigger hole to climb out of (thus) continuing the incarceration cycle," Cox said."Sometimes, there are other options."

Cox described how he has worked with the county's prosecuting attorney to move inmates to better suited facilities, such as, mental institutions, after analyizing the "why" of a crime. He also said he is looking at facts that could possibly help with cutting the rising prisoner intake rate such as: if this is a first-time offender, how major or minor the charge is, if this person has a job and if this person is in school / pursuing a higher education "This isn't going through the jail roster and saying, 'This is a good guy, this is a bad,' Cox said. "We see people from all walks of life. We see some that should be locked up for the rest of their lives and some that are good people with good hearts that made a stupid mistake. Those good people are usually in and out and we never see them again."

A preliminary plan of the county's 2016 budget should be drafted by January 19 and will be finalized by January 29. By then, more details on how the county will pay for increasing jail rates will be revealed.

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Livingston County Courthouse
700 Webster Street
Chillicothe, MO 64601