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COLUMN

Jail fees: Lots of pros about billing county's cons

But would tapping sheriff's "commissary fund" help or hurt taxpayers?

Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 7:22 am

Until recently, James Keefe had never heard of the Allen County Sheriff Department's so-called “commissary account.” But with nearly $400,000 in the fund – some of it grudgingly placed there by Keefe himself – you can bet members of Allen County Council are aware of it and will try to get their hands on it when 2013 budget hearings resume next week.

To what degree (if any) should Allen County Jail inmates and family members like Keefe have to pay for the toiletries, phone calls, medicine and other items used by prisoners? Should the sheriff have sole control of the resulting fund, which contained more than $736,000 as recently as 2007, or should Council intervene in light of countywide budget cuts? And if it does, would that persuade the Sheriff to raise even more from inmates or to give up in disgust, placing an even larger burden on law-abiding taxpayers?

“Good question,” said Council President Larry Brown, who doesn't have long to find answers.

Keefe, a retired Army Special Forces soldier who now serves as assistant coordinator for the Marines Corps Reserve's local Toys for Tots program, was also looking for answers when he called to question why his 42-year-old son Patrick had been billed $60 for medical expenses, and why loan shark-sized fees had been imposed on deposits into his son's jail account. Hadn't Sheriff Ken Fries just asked County Council for another $400,000 to pay inmates' medical expenses?

Keefe, whose son was jailed for violating parole on a drunken-driving charge, made it clear he wasn't angry so much as he was curious. So I relayed his concerns to Chief Deputy Dave Gladieux and, as it turns out, there are good reasons for most of what the department does – and for Gladieux's plan to raise even more money from inmates should he succeed Ken Fries as sheriff.

County ordinance authorizes the jail to impose a $15 co-payment on inmates seeking medical care, but that fee is waived if there are no funds in the inmates' commissary account. Because Keefe had made several deposits in his son's account, the jail was able to withdraw the co-payments.

That's clearly good for taxpayers, since the commissary fund transferred more than $21,000 in inmate medical payments to the county's general budget between January and June. But with annual jail medical costs of more than $1 million, it's still a drop in the bucket.

Non-medical fees stay in the commissary fund, however, and Gladieux said the county makes a healthy profit on both personal items and phone calls. But that money, he said, is used to buy bullet-proof vests, ammunition, guns, training and other items that would otherwise fall on taxpayers.

If Council decides Fries should use the fund to buy $400,000 worth of cars instead of increasing his 2013 budget by that amount, items currently purchased with money from inmates will fall on the taxpayers instead, Gladieux said.

And Gladieux said the county keeps none of the deposit fees that aroused Keefe's curiosity – fees that start at $3 for deposits of $20 or less. Those fees, he said, maintain the electronic deposit network that is more convenient for users and frees department employees for other duties.

“We aren't trying to gouge anyone,” Gladieux said, explaining that personal items must be purchased through the jail to prevent security breeches.

You may be asking: Why would somebody place money in a family member's account if the expenses would otherwise be paid by taxpayers? Inmates have thought of that, too, which is why some inmates have their families place money in somebody else's account. That way they can trade money while denying taxpayers their cut.

Gladieux would like to see an up-front fee imposed, such as a $25 surcharge added to the expense of posting a bond – something he believes could generate up to $450,000 a year. But even if that happened, Brown's “good question” would remain:

Would the department be allowed to keep some or most of the money, providing an incentive to collect more?

Or would Council, faced with declining tax revenues, want most of it – perhaps inducing just the opposite result?

“(The sheriff) asks for the moon, stars and sun (at budget time), but if he gets the moon, he'll be happy,” Brown said.

“I'm here to take the burden off taxpayers and Council off our back,” Gladieux said.

Ideally, the county should collect as much from inmates and as little from taxpayers as is legitimately possible, and any policy change should reflect that. But Keefe is neither a fool nor a troublemaker: If he's confused, others are, too – meaning more transparency is also needed.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.