By JOY BROWN and DENISE GRANT
Findlay officials are scrambling to find alternatives as they negotiate with Hancock County about a proposed 53 percent hike in jail inmate fees, which they say could cost the city an additional $350,000 annually.
The county commissioners want to raise the daily housing fee at the county jail from $55 per inmate, enacted 25 years ago, to $84. The higher figure reflects the true cost, the commissioners say.
In a letter to City Council, Mayor Lydia Mihalik refers to the county proposal as a “rather large increase.”
Findlay Municipal Court judges, who have been helping city administrators evaluate the situation, say the problem is compounded by jail overcrowding, which the Hancock County jail has experienced for several years.
Dave Beach, court services director, said 318 people who showed up at the jail last year to serve their sentences were turned away because there wasn’t room.
Municipal Judge Jonathan Starn said some offenders have been turned away from the jail as many as nine times.
Last summer, Starn said, the “female population was so astronomically high” at the jail that the city explored the idea of sending them to jails in Putnam and Seneca counties.
Too few beds for too many convicts “has been an ongoing problem for us for as long as I’ve been around,” Starn said.
The municipal judges are advocating creation of an “alternative sentencing center.” It’s a concept they suggested about five years ago when the city took over the work-release program that the county previously operated, and when the state altered some sentencing guidelines to contend with state prison overcrowding.
The alternative sentencing center would work in conjunction with work-release and be used for low-level, nonviolent offenders, particularly those sentenced for alcohol violations and other substance abuse crimes.
The work-release program charges participants $25 per day. It has yet to turn a profit, but officials point to the amount the city saves on jail fees for each work-release participant.
Last year, the city paid $210,026 to maintain the work-release program, which houses offenders at a building just west of the jail. But administrators said work-release saved the city $118,085 in jail fees. Fees collected from work-release participants totaled $97,000.
Beach, the court services director, said an $84-per-day jail charge would be neither the cheapest nor the costliest in the state.
“When you look at what other counties charge, it’s a fairly big range. Some charge $55 per day, some over $90,” Beach said.
The commissioners “have expressed urgency in implementing the new rate,” Mihalik said. The issue is expected to be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting of City Council’s Appropriations Committee.
Hancock County Commissioner Mark Gazarek, when contacted Wednesday, said $84 is “the true cost of housing a prisoner for one day.”
“We’re not looking to have money left on the table or to make a profit. We are trying to recover our expenses,” Gazarek said. “Findlay has been paying $55 to house prisoners for the past 25 years, which means the county has spent millions over the years to subsidize that expense for the city,” he said.
Gazarek said basing the increase on the rate of inflation would hike the daily fee to $108.35.
The current asking price is therefore still a bargain for the city, he said.
“What that number tells me is that the sheriff is operating a very efficient jail to be able to keep the cost under the rate of inflation,” Gazarek said.
He said the city administration has been aware of the need to increase the fee since March 2012, when the mayor met with both the sheriff and the former commissioners. The current commissioners began investigating the situation in October and began talks with the city in November, he said.
“This is nothing new to the city, or at least to its administration. They have known about the fees for almost two years now. It’s not something we just sprung on them,” Gazarek said.