Popular Garfield County criminal justice program could get ax
Garfield County commissioners are at a loss on ways to save a jail alternative program for offenders.
The county’s Workender program, administered through the county corrections facility in Rifle, is on the chopping block for the 2020 budget.
“I think that it would be a huge detriment to the community if we were to get rid of the Workender program,” County Judge Jonathan Pototsky told the commissioners during a budget hearing Tuesday.
Judges like to have options in sentencing nonviolent offenders that avoid clogging jail cells, he said.
“Otherwise, what winds up happening is that we’re either too lenient or too strict,” Pototsky said.
While Workenders is useful, and the commissioners expressed support for the mission, there may not be enough offenders going through the program to justify the expense.
At a budget hearing Monday, the commissioners heard from supporters of the program and promised to continue working on ways to pay for the program.
The issue caught the commissioners’ attention when the fairgrounds requested $30,000 to pay for contract labor and pointed at a lack of availability from the Workender program.
With fewer Workender laborers, other departments would likely have to pay more for contract work.
Adding to the Workender woes, the Rifle Community Corrections, which facilitates Workenders, needs to hire another overnight security guard.
Workenders operates similarly to community service, which is a separate program. Judges have the option to sentence nonviolent offenders to the Workenders program in certain situations.
Offenders labor several days a week for government agencies and nonprofit organizations, under the supervision of community corrections. Offenders pay $20 a day, but can live at home and, potentially, keep their jobs.
“I’m all for the program. I want the program to work. I need some help, too, with about $50,000 to make it work,” commission chair John Martin said.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who serves on the budget committee and brought up the idea of cutting it from the 2020 budget, also likes the program.
“I’m not opposed to the Workenders program at all. I think it’s a good way to do business,” Jankovsky said.
But keeping the program could mean a loss for the county budget. The commissioners had several goals for the 2020 budget.
Commissioners want the budget to remain balanced in operating expenses, and they don’t want to create any new staff positions or add new programs.
The judicial services budget jumped from $1.35 million in 2018 to $1.45 million in 2019. The 2020 budget request is $1.65 million, and $50,000 of that is for a new employee.
In order to afford a second overnight security guard, as required by state standards, something else would have to be cut.
When the fairgrounds asked for $30,000 more for their 2020 budget, the commissioners realized the program was not paying for itself.
The drop in referrals isn’t the only reason the program is getting more expensive.
Rodney Hollandsworth, director of criminal justice services, said costs are increasing in part because of experienced staff.
“We’re averaging about four clients on weekdays, 7-8 on the weekends. That’s not bad, but it’s not where it used to be when we had 11 or 12 on a daily basis,” Hollandsworth said.
At the same time, many of Hollandsworth’s staff have been on the job for more than 10 years. That’s good for the county recidivism rate, but also means salaries increase over time.
“I can beat the state (recidivism) average every year, hands-down because I have good employees,” Hollandsworth said.
“I know it’s expensive, but Garfield gets what it pays for,” he added.
County officials are nervous that declining property tax revenues from oil and gas, already falling, will make balancing budgets an even greater challenge in future years.
“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room for a balanced budget,” Jankovsky said.
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