The state auditor said pay-for-stay could bring in nearly $90,000 a year.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- An endorsement from the Ohio auditor's office has spurred Mahoning County commissioners to take a pay-for-stay proposal off the shelf for a second look.
The auditor's office recommended that the county implement a pay-for-stay program at the county jail as a means of generating extra operating revenue. It was one of several recommendations included in a performance audit of county government.
What it's about: Pay-for-stay is a program in which inmates are billed for their time spent in jail. Those with the ability to pay are required to reimburse the county for the cost of keeping them in jail. Such assessments are permitted under Ohio law.
Mahoning County had one of the first programs in Ohio in 1997, but it was later dropped because it was deemed ineffective.
In 2000, commissioners began toying with the idea of reviving the program after reading of revenue generated by Trumbull County's program. They were poised to hire a Canfield company to run the program for them, then changed their minds and said they wanted to seek bids from other contractors.
Bids were never sought, and the program never got off the ground.
"It just seemed like it was a touchy subject that never came to the fore," said commissioner Ed Reese.
Ready to reconsider: But now that the state has said pay-for-stay is a viable option that should be pursued, Reese said he's ready to put the program back on the table.
"We just have to get it on the agenda and get going on it," he said.
The audit report says that if the county charges inmates a minimum of $12 a day and has a collection rate of 4 percent, which is similar to Allen County's, it could generate $87,000 a year in fees.
Commissioner David Ludt remains opposed to the idea, however, because he does not think it's fair. Most inmates don't have the money to pay a fee, he said. Forcing some to pay while others don't have to would be discriminatory.
"What's good for one should be good for everybody," Ludt added.
Sheriff has a plan: Sheriff Randall Wellington, who supports the program, has offered commissioners a plan that would generate revenue without having to hire a contractor.
Pay-for-stay software is available at no cost from Canteen Service of Steel Valley, which provides food service at the jail, he said. Using that software, the sheriff's department can run the program itself.
Wellington said if the county deducts $2 a day from each inmate's commissary account, about $125,000 a year would be generated.
"It's just a nominal fee that should not be a hardship on anyone," Wellington said. "It would stay in-house with no outside agency or coordinator."
County Administrator Gary Kubic said commissioners will weigh that option against what could be generated by contracting with a private agency. If it appears the program would be worthwhile, they will proceed, he said.
The decision will be based on facts, not on the political popularity of making inmates pay for time spent in jail, Kubic said.
In favor: Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock favors pay-for-stay and likes the in-house option, though she wants to see a cost comparison before deciding which way to go. She also thinks commissioners should check with other counties that have programs in place.
The County Commissioners Association of Ohio supports pay-for-stay as a means of offsetting the increasing cost of operating jails, said policy analyst John Leutz.
He said criminal justice costs consume 50 to 70 percent of most counties' general fund budgets, so any means of relief should be welcome. Few counties have implemented such a program, however, he added.
"We do think that in the long run, especially in larger counties, there is some merit to pay-for-stay," Leutz said.