Big inmate medical bills keep Utah counties off balance

Thursday , July 12, 2018 - 5:15 AM

In at least one place along the Wasatch Front, the sheriff’s budget isn’t an angry battlefield.

“In Box Elder County, my experiences are terrific,” Sheriff Kevin Potter said Wednesday. “We have a great County Commission and great communication. I don’t know if I’m lucky or not.”

RELATED: Davis sheriff's $15 million budget hike request shocks commissioners

On July 3, Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy resigned, frustrated by budget woes he said he could solve only by laying off deputies and closing a section of the jail, according to the Daily Herald.

Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson has been in frequent conflict with the commission and county auditor in Farmington, most recently over a $635,000 surge in overtime spending.

Sheriff’s spending in Weber County has been a political football since a 2016 tax increase helped pay for public safety employees’ raises that were sought to stem recruitment and retention woes.

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Some commissioners view sheriff’s offices as an unknowable “deep, dark hole, a no-end bottomless pit” in a county budget, said Aaron Kennard, Utah Sheriffs’ Association executive director.

“Well, it is,” said Kennard, who was Salt Lake County sheriff for 16 years.

Kennard said he can sympathize with Tracy, because most sheriff’s offices have their county’s largest budget, and most of that goes to personnel expenses, chiefly patrol deputies and jail officers.

“The biggest expense in corrections is people. You just have to have them, and we’re not paying them a heck of a lot of money,” Kennard said.

Today’s jails are under greater pressure due to higher populations of mentally ill and substance-abusing inmates.

“I’m not sure we can get ahead of it,” Kennard said. “We just need to be able to work with the commissions, get public support for the need for additional monies. ... That’s incumbent upon the sheriff get out and about in his community.”

Tracy “probably had a gut full” of battling for funding, Kennard said.

“Sheriffs have an ongoing battle because even as elected officials, we don’t have the luxury to set our own budget,” Kennard said. “We are at the mercy of the county commissions.”

INMATE MEDICAL COSTS

A large medical bill for one inmate may have precipitated Tracy’s resignation, according to the Daily Herald’s coverage. But the scenario is familiar to officials in other counties, including Potter in Brigham City and Davis County Commissioner Jim Smith.

Potter said a Box Elder inmate needed surgery several months ago, requiring an extended hospital stay.

“It was not only a huge medical bill, but he needed to be guarded for over a week, which is a lot of staff time,” Potter said.

But in Potter’s case, he said he went to the commission to get the un-budgeted expense covered. 

“That’s the process when there is an exorbitant bill,” the sheriff said. “Where those guys, the auditors and commissioners, find the money ... I just know they do it. That’s how it works.”

Smith said such jail medical expense overruns can’t be planned for, but the process for dealing with them involves the sheriff making a specific request, “and it has to be a logical request.”

Commissioners may tap an excess fund balance or look for trimming elsewhere in the sheriff’s budget. 

Tracy said his office was sent to collections over its unpaid medical bill. But Smith said with good communication among officials, it should not get that far.

“We have a statutory responsibility to care for our inmates,” he said.

JAIL EXPANSION TALK

At the Box Elder Jail, it’s “routinely 70 to 80 percent full,” Potter said, meaning the possibility of expanding the jail is being discussed.

“We are going to have a plan that will have options,” Potter said. “I don’t think we’re that far away from having to build a pod, maybe 5 to 10 years away.”

Meantime, Box Elder has started a GPS tracking system for monitoring pretrial defendants, freeing up some bed space in the jail.

The county also has been slowly reducing the number of state inmates it accepts under contract with the Utah Department of Corrections, as the population of local inmates rises.

The daily jail head count is about 135 now, Potter said. The jail has 165 beds, but he considers it to be operationally full at 150 inmates. The other 15 are medical cells and those reserved for female inmates.

The jail has a $3.6 million annual budget.

“With any budget, there’s give and take,” Potter said. “We don’t get everything we want, but for our basic needs, we get those met.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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