Vallario, primary challenger differ over jail leasing
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – The challenger in the upcoming Garfield County Republican Primary election for sheriff believes the county jail could be used as a potential revenue source to help ease the burden on taxpayers.
“The jail can be a money maker for the county,” said Doug Winters, a Rifle resident and Eagle County Sheriff’s Office detective who is challenging incumbent Republican Sheriff Lou Vallario in the Aug. 10 primary to be the party’s candidate in this fall’s general election.
Garfield County’s jail was designed to handle 212 inmates, but often only houses about half that number of local inmates. As of Tuesday morning, the jail count was 104 inmates.
By offering surplus jail space for lease to other counties that may be dealing with overcrowding in their jail facilities, Winters contends that Garfield County citizens could get some tax relief.
“The jail should be operating at capacity or near capacity and charging a fee to fill that space,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everybody, and it’s a way to offset tax expenses for the county.”
However, Vallario said leasing excess space in the jail is impractical for a number of reasons. Not only would the revenue potential be limited, it would also be in violation of the county’s agreements with the city of Glenwood Springs when the jail was built in 2002.
“When the city of Glenwood Springs approved the special use permit to build the jail, there was an ‘agreement’ with the Board of County Commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office that we specifically would not bring in outside inmates for the purpose of generating revenue,” Vallario said.
That very issue surfaced about three years ago when questions arose about the jail’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigration detainees, he said.
“The city was upset in that they felt we violated that agreement,” Vallario said. “I had to explain that the ICE contract was intended to assist a federal agency and not generate revenue, which it did not.”
Vallario said the jail population fluctuates daily, with a low of 79 inmates and a high of 235 when the ICE contract was in effect.
“For 2009 we were averaging 160-170,” he said. However, that number has dropped off this year on average, likely due to the stabilization of the county’s population and the economy, he said.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s before the new jail was built, Garfield County routinely had more inmates than it could legally house in the old jail, and was forced to send inmates to neighboring counties.
Vallario said that arrangement is always available to other agencies in need of assistance, but not as a way to generate revenue above the costs to house those outside inmates.
“I do not charge the other sheriffs because sheriffs often swap inmates for a variety of reasons, such as having an inmate who’s related to an employee, medical issues, transportation efficiency … or to assist with overcrowding issues. I treat it as a professional courtesy.”
Because the city had concerns about the county leasing out jail space to other counties when the jail was approved, there was a verbal agreement from some county officials that the jail would not be used in that way. However, the intergovernmental agreement and special use permits that were approved did not specifically prohibit such use, according to city planner Andrew McGregor.
In any case, Winters said he would like to revisit the issue if he wins the primary and is ultimately elected sheriff in November over the Democratic candidate, former Garfield County sheriff Tom Dalessandri.
“It’s certainly an area we really need to look into and could be a way of generating some revenue to go back to the community and offset some cost to taxpayers,” he said. “Especially given the economic times, why not be a resource to those other agencies to help them out in the meantime? It’s not a permanent situation, it is temporary housing for those county’s inmates.
“If the city has concerns, we can work together to come up with a compromise,” he added. “And, if it’s not a feasible thing to do it’s not necessarily something that would have to happen.”
Vallario said the revenue potential is not that great to lease out the surplus jail space.
“Unless you are bringing in outside inmates on a large wholesale level, and there are jails out there that do that, there is very little revenue when you consider the hard and soft costs, the administrative costs and the medical costs,” he said.
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