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Jail staff expansion banks on more federal inmates

FARGO -- Sheriff Paul Laney has found an unexpected solution to the staff shortage at the Cass County Jail: accept more inmates.

Laney is asking for 13 new positions at the jail in his 2014 budget request as the facility prepares to quadruple the number of beds reserved for federal prisoners.

The jail currently guarantees 10 beds for the U.S. Marshals Service at a daily rate of $60 per inmate through an arrangement made when the federal government chipped in grant money to help cover the cost of the jail, which opened in 2002.

Starting next year, Laney plans to set aside an additional 30 beds for federal prisoners at a higher negotiated daily rate of $75 per inmate, which is what other metro-area law enforcement agencies pay in Cass County. Agencies outside the county pay $85 per day.

The additional revenue generated by housing more federal inmates, projected at nearly $900,000 next year, is expected to cover the cost of adding nine correctional officers, a corporal, two sergeants and a booking clerk to the jail's existing roster of 91 full-time employees, Laney said. Next year's preliminary budget lists the cost of the 13 new positions at $767,407, which the sheriff said will leave a cushion for future raises and cost-of-living adjustments.

Laney called the plan "a complete win-win" for the jail, sheriff's office and county taxpayers.

"I looked at this as, OK, if the federal government wants me to solve their problem, they're going to help solve Cass County's problem," he said.

The extra help can't arrive soon enough at the jail, where staffing levels are "always below minimum or at minimum," Laney said. The jail has 300 beds for adult inmates and normally averages between 180 and 250 inmates per day, handled by a minimum of 14 jail workers during the day and 11 to 12 workers after hours, he said.

"We're at the point where we're getting to a level where we are very concerned about the safety of our deputies," Laney said.

Dan Orr, chief deputy U.S. marshal for North Dakota, said Fargo has long been the Marshals Service's hub of operations for housing and moving prisoners, the majority of whom are awaiting court appearances and trials or awaiting transport to federal prison.

As of Thursday, the Marshals Service had 170 prisoners in custody in North Dakota but only 37 guaranteed jail beds in the state: 10 in Cass County, 12 at the Burleigh County Detention Center in Bismarck and 15 at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center.

The Marshals Service also houses prisoners at county jails in Rugby, Jamestown, Minot and Washburn when beds are available, but Orr said those facilities are facing increased pressure from the oil activity in western North Dakota.

"Our jail facilities over there are filling up, and ... by doing this agreement, we're going to be able to shift some of our population from the central and western part of the state over here to the eastern side of the state, which will free up some additional space on our facilities out there," he said.

If approved, the new jail positions would boost the Cass County Jail's roster to the equivalent of 104 full-time positions, making it the largest county jail staff in North Dakota by at least 40 employees.

The Grand Forks County Correctional Center has 62 full-time staffers and a maximum capacity of 242 inmates, while the Burleigh County Detention Center in Bismarck has 36 full-time staffers and beds for 138 inmates.

Capt. Lisa Wicks, the assistant jail administrator in Burleigh County, said the detention center's staffing level is "adequate." The county is averaging 167 inmates daily this year, requiring it to contract for jail beds in other counties, she said.

The Grand Forks County Correctional Center averaged 185 inmates per day last year, said Administrator Bret Burkholder, who has requested two full-time positions in next year's budget. The center has exceeded capacity only once, in spring 2009 when it housed Cass County Jail inmates who were evacuated because of the threat of flooding, he said.

The Burleigh and Grand Forks county jails charge the Marshals Service a per-diem rate of $65 and $70, respectively, the same rate they charge other counties for housing their prisoners.

Overall expenditures in Laney's proposed 2014 budget for the sheriff's office -- which includes sheriff's office operations, the Emergency Services Unit, the jail and the juvenile detention center -- would increase $1.94 million, or 14 percent, over the current year. Revenue would increase nearly 58 percent, to $2.92 million.

After new jail staff, the largest line-item increase in Laney's preliminary budget is $554,702 for two new patrol deputies, including salaries, benefits, vehicles and other costs associated with the positions. Laney said he had requested six new patrol positions because the patrol staff is undersized for a county the size of Cass.

The sheriff's operations division currently has the equivalent of 49 full-time employees plus the sheriff, an elected position Laney has held since January 2007.

A public hearing on the approved preliminary budget is set for 3:30 p.m. Sept. 16 in the Commission Room at the Cass County Courthouse.