Jackson County legislators are discussing going to the voters for a bond issue to pay for major work on the county jail and perhaps other projects.

Legislators point out that they are nowhere near having enough information to even decide whether to stick with the current building at 13th and Cherry in downtown Kansas City – which officials say is built in a way that makes operations inefficient – or to look at a new facility.

But the bonding idea came up a few times this week during legislators’ department-by-department review of the proposed 2017 budget. County Executive Frank White Jr. has said jail issues are significant focus of that budget, and the Corrections Department is set for a 10 percent budget increase for operations.

“It’s not an easy fix over there,” said Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City.

Legislative Chair Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, said the money needed for major changes at the jail can’t be found in the general budget “because it’s a much bigger issue than that.” She added that the county will likely have to use “bonding and other issues” but stressed there’s no timeline for that yet or even a clear sense of which way to go.

Legislators hold their last scheduled meeting of the year next Monday, and in addition to passing the $311.21 budget for next year, they are expected to approve a $1.54 million contract for improvements to jail cell doors – a security issue – and move $2.17 million from reserve funds to pay for Corrections Department budget shortfalls, mostly overtime.

They also are likely to approve hiring an outside company, CRA Inc. of Vienna, Virginia, to conduct “an independent, comprehensive performance audit” of the county Department of Corrections. That cost is $300,000.

Three months ago, after one prisoner got a key, wandered through a lockup area and was accused of raping another prisoner, White initiated an investigation by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves. That’s also when legislators got the ball rolling on their own outside review.

The jail also is potentially under the scrutiny of the FBI. In August 2015, Mike Sanders, the county executive at the time, announced an FBI investigation following a series of incidents, including one in which a prisoner suffered a broken back, a broken neck and a punctured lung. Four guards left the employment of the county after that. Sanders said at the time that FBI investigations can take months, if not years. To date, the FBI has announced nothing.

Financial drain

The jail is a financial headache for county officials. The county says in 2015 it cost at $77.90 a day to feed, treat and house a prisoner – officials are still tallying some costs – but it collects nowhere near that amount from others for whom it houses prisoners.

Most people in the jail are being held on state charges, but the state only pays its rate of $21.08 a day after a person is convicted and sentenced to a year or more with the state, and that happens in a small fraction of cases. If the person gets probation or is sentenced to time served, the county recoups nothing,

About 275 of the 950 people in the jail on a typical day are through Kansas City police and courts, and the city pays $52.50 a day. The county would like to see that figure raised, and county officials say the city is open to that idea.

Still, legislators say every prisoner in the jail ends up as a significant cost to local taxpayers.

“So we need to figure out a different strategy here,” Tarwater said.

The county Corrections Department also is still fighting overtime costs. Some of that problem stems from high turnover and consistently having unfilled corrections officer positions. Officials have said low pay is an issue. That job was at a starting wage of $11.60 an hour. This year the county raised that to $12.60, with $14.55 within in reach in a year if an employee works out well.

Corrections Director Joe Piccinini said that’s helped cut turnover, which was 24 percent in 2014, jumped to 46 percent last year and has been 35 percent so far this year.

“Still not where we want to be, obviously” he said, “but still a slight improvement over 2015.

Bond issue?

The county might be looking at some other capital costs as well. The six elevators in the Downtown Courthouse have motors as old as the building itself – 80 years – and will likely need to be replaced, Public Works officials say. That could cost around $2.6 million, and when that came up in this week’s budget talks, Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence, suggested that perhaps that cost would need to be folded in with whatever bond issue the county might seek for jail issues.

The jail is in use of county resources, in other ways too. Donna Shumate is the director of the county’s Ethics, Human Relations and Citizen Complaints office. It’s a small office, and she handles much of the work herself. Legislator Alfred Jordan, D-Kansas City, asked her how much of her time is taken with jail complaints.

“I will put it this way,” she said. “If I had a complaint officer, that’s all they would handle, is the jail.”