City snubs county jail fee increase — for now

Published 11:10 pm Saturday, May 30, 2009

IRONTON — A county proposal to raise the daily fee it charges to house the city’s prisoners has Ironton officials wondering about some of the ambiguous language contained in the agreement.

At issue is the renewal of an 11-year compact between Lawrence County and the City of Ironton that would raise the daily rate the city paid for prisoner housing at the Lawrence County Jail from $40 to $55 per day.

City council, along with Chief of Police Jim Carey, said the agreement contains too many open ended provisions regarding the burden of financial responsibility if medical care is required for an inmate charged under city ordinances while in county supervision.

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Ironton, along with nearly every other municipality in Lawrence County, has had a long-standing housing agreement with the county where prisoners charged with municipal crimes can be detained in the Lawrence County Jail.

Cities, like Ironton, do not pay the county for prisoners jailed for violating state statutes, only for those in jail for municipal code violations.

But what happens should a municipal code violator require health care under the watch of the Lawrence County Sheriff’s department? That question, along with wanting to know the true daily cost of housing a prisoner resulted in council tabling the resolution for a second meeting in a row.

“Parts of the agreement are open to a variety of interpretations,” Carey said.

What Carey referred to is a consideration within the proposed contract that has the city bearing the “financial responsibility for medical treatment or prescriptions which must be subsequently purchased for the prisoner.”

It also states that prisoners “requiring medical or dental treatment, hospitalization, special treatment or extra expenses” will have the city reimbursing the county.

Also, both Carey and council showed some frustration on not being able to obtain from the county a copy of the previous agreement. The Tribune also has been unable to be provided a copy of the previous agreement, only to be told by a representative in the commissioner’s office that it was inked on Jan. 31, 1998 and “no changes were made” contract to contract.

The daily fee increase comes in the wake of the Lawrence County Jail feeling the pinch of overcrowding and funding cuts.

Outfitted with 52 beds, the jail routinely has more than 70 inmates at a time — mostly for felonies. Add to that, a 15-percent decrease in funding and Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless has been forced to do more with less.

Between maintenance, prisoners’ medical bills, food costs, electricity and other expenses, jails often cost counties more money than they take in.

Through the first four months of the year, Lawless has been forced to pay Scioto County more than $107,000 to house “overflow inmates” when the Lawrence County Jail is too full.

With $300,000 budgeted in 2009 for overflow inmates the county has already burnt through a third of its allotment.