POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 24, 2008:
Showdown at the County Jail
Will city and county continue to run the lockup jointly? Yes, if reason prevails
Within the next week, the decade-long jail operating agreement between Tulsa County and the City of Tulsa will expire, forcing the city to find alternative accommodations for those being held on city misdemeanor charges and forcing the county to find somewhere else to hold prisoners awaiting trial at the county courthouse.
There hasn't been much movement toward a renewed agreement. An initial county proposal, released in March, was a radical departure from the current agreement, boosting the city's costs from zero to around $1.7 million per year. While city and county officials have twice agreed to extend negotiations, at press time the county has yet to respond to a city counteroffer.
The existing contract was set to expire on June 30, but it was extended to September 30.
On September 12, Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor issued a memo outlining the state of negotiations with the county, the problems with the county's proposal, the city's two counteroffers, and the history of the current operating agreement. Attached to Taylor's memo were letters and documents from 1995, when the county won city support for a jail sales tax by promising to eliminate city government's contribution to the jail budget.
Under the expiring agreement, the county's jail system includes facilities that are owned by the City of Tulsa: The Adult Detention Center on Charles Page Blvd. and the old city jail in the city police courts building. The county also has use of city-owned and city-staffed property room. In lieu of paying rent on those properties, the county houses up to 116 municipal prisoners at no charge to the city.
The current contract defines a "municipal prisoner" as someone "present in the Jail System exclusively as the result of a City of Tulsa misdemeanor charge." If a prisoner would have been in jail anyway on state or federal charges, that prisoner doesn't count toward the city's allowance of 116 prisoners.
If there are more than 116 municipal prisoners being held, on average, the city pays $16.44 per excess prisoner per day. The municipal prisoner count has never exceeded this number.
The county's proposal for a new agreement doesn't include the Adult Detention Center; the county says that space is no longer needed. The facility is being sublet to Avalon Correctional Services, which operates it as Riverside Intermediate Sanction Facility, a "community security and intermediate sanction adult male facility," housing state inmates and detainees of U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The county proposal treats the county's use of the old city jail as an even trade for the Tulsa Police Department's offices at the county lockup. There would be no allowance for a certain number of municipal prisoners. Instead, the city would be billed $54.13 per prisoner per day, starting with the first prisoner.
This change would cost the city about $700,000 per year; on average the jail houses 35 purely municipal prisoners every day.
The most radical and most costly change is to the definition of municipal prisoner. Under the county's proposal, the city would be billed for any prisoner with pending municipal misdemeanor charges, even if the prisoner would have to be in the sheriff's custody anyway on state charges. State law makes it the county's responsibility to jail those being held on state charges.
This change alone increases shifts of county costs to the city by about $1 million a year.
The city's latest counteroffer would keep the current definition of municipal prisoner and would give the city an allowance of 35 municipal prisoners per day, as averaged over the course of each year. The city would pay $18 per day for each additional municipal prisoner.
The city would also waive fees to the county for maintaining criminal records and responding to radio requests for record and warrant checks and would continue a dollar-a-year lease to the county for two facilities used by the county for juvenile detention and treatment. The city estimates that these two concessions are worth over half a million dollars per year.
History's on the City's Side
The city and county have maintained joint jail operations since 1981, with the county housing some of the jail population in city-owned facilities and the city using the county system for those being incarcerated for violating city ordinances. With the city's help, the county was able to stay out of hot water with state and federal authorities.
Tulsa County was sued in 1979 for unconstitutional conditions in the jail, then located on the 8th and 9th floors of the County Courthouse. In 1981, the city helped ease the county's overcrowding problem by making the city's jail and Adult Detention Center available to house county prisoners.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 1987 with the understanding that the county would keep the population of the jail system at about 550.
In 1987 and 1989, Tulsa County voters defeated bond issues to build a new jail. In 1990, City of Tulsa voters approved money in the Third Penny sales tax to expand the Adult Detention Center. In exchange for the city's asking taxpayers to expand the facility, the county agreed to wait five years before asking the voters to finance a new jail.
Until the detention center expansion opened in March 1994, Sheriff Stanley Glanz made do the best he could, on several occasions housing the prisoner overflow in tents.
When Bill Clinton's Justice Department threatened a lawsuit over unconstitutional jail conditions resulting from overcrowding, county officials set a July 1995 election for a half-penny sales tax to fund jail construction, operation, and crime prevention programs.
In order to win the support of city officials, the county commissioners made a commitment that the city would be relieved of funding jail operation and maintenance. The ongoing quarter-penny jail tax would provide $5 million per year, eliminating the city's annual $2 million share of costs and reducing the county general fund's annual contribution by $3 million.
County officials also committed to putting the jail under a trust authority to include the county commissioners, the mayor of Tulsa, and three suburban mayors.
District Judge Jane Wiseman cancelled the July election because it violated the Oklahoma Constitution's prohibition on logrolling--trying to win approval of unpopular items by grouping them with popular, but unrelated, provisions.
(Eight years later, Wiseman turned a blind eye to more blatant logrolling on the Vision 2025 ballot. She now sits on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.)
A revised jail tax vote in September 1995 split out the crime prevention programs, to be funded by a 1/12-cent sales tax, as a separate question, which the voters defeated.
Voters approved the temporary 2/12-cent tax for jail construction and a permanent 1/4-cent tax for construction and ongoing operation of the jail.
Taylor's memo cites records of the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority (TCCJA) showing that the sheriff has been able to operate the jail for $2 million less than the $23 million raised annually by the quarter-cent tax. There doesn't seem to be any financial justification for the county demanding additional funds from the city.
Taylor also points out that about 75 percent of the jail tax revenue is generated by sales in the City of Tulsa.
While the city has been working with Avalon since April on a contingency plan to house municipal prisoners at the Adult Detention Center, the county seems ill-prepared to deal with the expiration of the contract.
The sheriff depends on the city's sally port, jail, and secure skybridge to transport prisoners securely to the county courthouse for hearings and trials.
City Council Chairman John Eagleton, intimately familiar with the courthouse as a criminal defense attorney and former assistant district attorney, told me he had expected the county to prepare for independent operation by remodeling the northwestern-most courtroom into a secure entrance and holding facility to replace the city's facility. Instead the space was refurbished earlier this year for continued use as a courtroom.
As one way to break the impasse, Eagleton has suggested offering to the county, for a dollar a year, the use of the city-owned office building at 7th and Houston. This would allow the county to avoid the expense of adding floors to its administration building at 6th and Denver. Perhaps that would ease the sting of the county having to pay a city-imposed assessment of $140,000 toward the new downtown Drillers Stadium.
Taxpayers and law enforcement agencies alike have benefited from joint city-county jail operations. The city's willingness to provide additional space in 1981 and to support the county's jail sales tax in 1995 prevented costly federal intervention.
Mayor Taylor and the City Council are to be commended for taking an assertive stand on behalf of city taxpayers. The city's current offer seems fair and balanced. City and county shoppers are already adequately funding jail operations through the sales tax.
Let's hope county officials will relent and accept the city's offer. The interests of public safety and fiscal sanity are best served by continued city-county cooperation.
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