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Prison expansion to require more funding

Detention center's financial situation discussed
Sunday, October 20, 2019
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Leader photo by T. SCOTT BOATRIGHT
            The Lincoln Parish Detention Center Commission will meet Tuesday morning to potentially come up with a funding source to make up an $843,000 cost overflow for the prison’s longawaited dorm expansion project.

The Lincoln Parish Detention Center Commission will address a cost overflow for the parish prison’s new dormitory expansion this week, as well as the jail’s overall budget.

This comes on the heels of the Lincoln Parish Police Jury discussing these topics in the closing minutes of its Oct. 8 meeting after fielding several questions from the public on the matter.

The commission will convene Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the police jury meeting room. It will attempt to settle on a means of funding the roughly $843,000 overflow of costs associated with the jail’s longanticipated trustee dorm building addition that will not be covered by the project’s primary financing source.

Funding the new building

The police jury applied for and won a $2.67 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018 to pay for the 96-bed dorm building. The expansion will house the prison’s population of Louisiana Department of Corrections trustee inmates, freeing up more room for local pre-trial inmates in the main facility.

LPDC Warden Jim Tuten said Wednesday the prison was responsible for a total of 280 prisoners at that time. The current facility contains 241 beds.

“We’ve got to have those new beds, or we’re going to continue to pay more than $20,000 a month to somebody else (to house the overflow),” Tuten said. “We’ve spent $1.7 million since 2013 housing people somewhere else.”

But after several unanticipated delays in the approval process, the expansion project has turned out to be more expensive than originally thought, surpassing the loan amount considerably.

Parish staff said the lowest contract bid for the building itself was $2.8 million, but there are several other associated costs, from equipment and furnishings to the price of numerous feasibility studies. All together, the current total project cost being submitted to the USDA for approval is roughly $3.52 million.

“Bids did come in high, but they’re being held right now so we can try to figure out where we’re going to get the extra money,” Parish Administrator Courtney Hall said at the Oct. 8 jury meeting.

And that’s what the commission will be seeking to decide Tuesday.

The LPDC commission is composed of Police Jury President Randy Roberson, Sheriff Mike Stone, Ruston Police Chief Steve Rogers, and District Attorney John Belton — each by virtue of his office — as well as Police Jury Vice-President Joe Henderson, who was elected by the jury as the commission’s final member.

The commission is responsible for operating the detention center and setting its budget. Since 2013, it has contracted with the sheriff ’s office to run the facility. Meanwhile, it is the police jury that owns the detention center building and property.

In an informal meeting in September, police jury staff reportedly offered a potential financing solution: the jury, the city of Ruston and the prison’s own budget would split the cost overflow three ways. This idea was promptly rejected.

By state law, the only financial obligation Ruston has toward the jail is to cover 15% of any deficit its budget runs at the end of the year — not a deficit in the cost of any particular project.

“At this point in time, the city is not prepared to pay 33% of the cost overrun,” Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said.

Tuesday’s meeting will reveal what other solutions may be reached. In the meantime, spurred by the expansion situation, talk of the detention center’s overall financial situation abounds.

Housing state inmates

The LPDC commission will also set a date to vote on the prison’s amended 2019 and proposed 2020 budgets at the Tuesday meeting.

Both in the jury’s last meeting and in interviews following the Oct. 12 elections, some police jurors have referenced a notion that the LPDC budget is projected to begin running a deficit in about one year and eight months if the police jury doesn’t “do something” to change the situation.

However, Tuten said that timetable would be correct only if the prison were to stop accepting DOC inmates. He said he “crunched those numbers” only as a hypothetical situation in order to answer jurors’ questions about why DOC prisoners were accepted in the first place.

“(Jurors) came out and asked me,‘Why don’t you get rid of DOC?’ Then you wouldn’t be overcrowded,’” Tuten said. “And they’re right — I wouldn’t be.”

But, he said, the loss of direct and indirect revenues from housing state prisoners would soon render the prison insolvent.

The jail has housed an average of 128 DOC inmates per year since the sheriff ’s office took over operations. That’s usually between 25-50 inmates at any given time.

The state pays the LPDC an average of $1.3 million per year to house those inmates. State prisoners also generate more than $160,000 from using the jail’s commissary and phone services yearly. They also provide most of the facility’s manual labor.

Even after factoring in the savings of no longer needing outside housing, Tuten said forgoing DOC inmates would net a $1.9 million yearly loss in revenue.

“You’d lose all that income,” he said. “So do we need the new beds? Yeah, we do. We can’t get rid of DOC.”

For comparison, in recent years the jail’s annual budget has been roughly $4 million.

Budget still hurting

While an impending deficit in the LPDC budget may not be as near or certain as some jurors indicated, Tuten said things are still heading that way eventually, because of overcrowding.

The original 2019 budget contained $157,000 for outside housing costs, a low projection because at the time, the dorm expansion was expected to be up and running this summer. It has not yet broken ground, as bids have not been accepted.

“Through September, I spent $212,000 on outside housing this year,” Tuten said. “I have averaged more than $23,000 a month.”

This figure does not include the various other expenses and safety concerns involved in transporting as many as 50 DOC inmates a day from housing in Ouachita Parish to court in Lincoln Parish and back again.

As previously reported, police jury staff say delays in the project have been caused by paperwork mixups around the time of the government shutdown at the turn of the year, multiple surprise appraisal requirements, and other red tape and miscommunication with the USDA to receive the funding.

Despite the budget strain, Tuten said he doesn’t expect to run a deficit at year’s end, though the final budget has yet to be approved. But under the current situation, that day might be coming.

“We’ve been fortunate this year. But can I keep cutting and hoping and putting a Band-Aid on an arterial blood flow (of problems) to try to keep this thing afloat?” he said. “No.”