GALVESTON — A county request for the city of Galveston to begin paying more for city prisoners held in the county jail could affect the city’s budget for the next year.
For more than a month, the city and the county have been negotiating on how much the city should pay the county for 21 beds that are set aside at the Galveston County Jail for prisoners arrested on municipal charges by the Galveston Police Department.
The city pays a rate of about $35 per prisoner per day for 21 beds at the jail, said interim City Manager Brian Maxwell. That rate is set whether the beds are used or not. The city pays additional fees if the number of municipal prisoners exceeds 21.
The city does not have its own jail facilities.
In June, the county, through its finance director, David Delac, proposed that the city increase the rate it pays per prisoner to $89.80 a day. The county also sent a rate study that concluded that the county spent an average of $85.89 per prisoner
County commissioners say that the increase is because of the rising costs for criminal care since the Galveston County Justice Center opened in 2006. But coming into the new budget year, county officials reviewed the contract between the city and the county.
Galveston’s rate per prisoner “seemed a little low,” Precinct 4 County Commissioner Ken Clark said. Other jurisdictions, including the federal government, pay higher rates than what the city does to hold prisoners at the jail.
“We’re just needing to recover our costs, based on the contract” Clark said. “When the city and the county agreed to that contract back in the day, that $35 was too low to begin with.”
After the letter was sent, it appeared that the city and county could be at loggerheads over the increase. In initial draft budgets, Maxwell had included the increase in jail fees as an option for the City Council to consider — in the same category as an increase to the size of the police force, or a cost of living increase for employees. If enacted, the council would have had to decrease a requested 2.5 cent property tax rate cut.
In order to meet the county’s request, the city would have to pay an additional $391,517 per year.
But Wednesday, Maxwell said new drafts of the budget would include a smaller built-in increase to the jail fees, to about $42 per prisoner. The would still maintain the city’s tax rate decrease. He said he hoped the increase this year would appease the county while the two sides work toward a further increase that would take place in a future year.
“We’re going to budget for some increase this year,” Maxwell said. “We’ve agreed to sit and confer after the budget about how far that will go.”
Maxwell said he has an intimate understanding of how and why the city’s contract with the county is structured as it is now, because he was one of the people who helped negotiate it. Maxwell was the county’s project director when the justice center was being constructed.
Maxwell said that the understanding at the time the contract was signed was that the city would pay for the direct costs of its municipal inmates, for things such as meals. The city would not, however, be charged for costs that the county would have incurred anyway, such as electrical bills and salaries.
The county’s analysis of per diem did include some of those things — including salaries.
“We understood that the county had to fill up the jail with 1,000-something beds anyway,” Maxwell said. “The city would just basically pay for the marginal costs of those 21 beds.”
The jail has an average daily prisoner population of about 843 prisoners, according to the rate study conducted by the county. It’s unclear how many municipal prisoners are in the jail on an average day — but Maxwell said that the city only exceeded its bed limit twice in the past year.
Clark said commissioners have received the city’s proposed increase to $42, but it’s unclear if it will be accepted.
“We’re not opposed to having a discussion if they have an issue with our numbers,” Clark said. “Some of the members of the court, they don’t feel that other cities should have to pay for their inmates, county inmates and subsidize the city of Galveston’s inmates.”
Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @johnwferguson.