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Counties want state to fund inmates -- Becker County doing OK, thanks to workhouse

Minnesota county officials complain they are forced to collect up to $9 million more in property taxes because the state does not fully pay for prisoners it orders counties to hold.

The 40 felons in Becker County this year cost the county about $55,000 -- based on $55 a day cost to jail them.

But the actual cost to Becker County is less than half of that, thanks to lower costs associated with holding prisoners in the minimum security workhouse instead of the maximum security jail, said Sheriff Tim Gordon.

"Without the minimum security (jail) we would be in a world of hurt," Gordon said. "We'd be sending out prisoners to other counties at $55 per head."

To balance the Minnesota budget in 2003, legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed to require counties to house some prisoners in county jails. Those prisoners, who have less than six months to serve on felony sentences, are a state responsibility, but the state never has fully compensated counties for the expense.

Each day a county jail houses a prisoner, it costs anywhere from $55 to more than $100, county officials say. But the state only paid $9 to $13 for the past few years, until payments spiked at $27.24 this year. They are to fall to about $9 next year.

The Association of Minnesota Counties estimates that will cost counties $6 million to $9 million next year, money that must come from taxes paid by local property owners.

County officials, meeting in St. Paul anyway, decided on Thursday to call attention to the situation. They laid hundreds of jail jumpsuits on the state Capitol steps to protest the situation.

"We're losing money," Kandiyohi County Commissioner Richard Larson said.

The impact varies greatly from county to county, with small-population counties like Lake losing no more than $2,640 next year, the association estimates, for housing just two state felons. But neighboring St. Louis County could lose nearly $540,000 for holding 170 state prisoners.

St. Louis County Commissioner Dennis Fink said the state and county governments need to work together to solve the financial problem. "All units of government are in this economic crisis together."

County leaders called for state-county meetings to find a way that the state can pay more for its inmates.

A key legislator said he will hold such meetings, but county officials should not get their hopes up.

"The challenge is the state doesn't have the money to make changes right now," said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee.

When lawmakers gather in January to begin drawing up a two-year budget, Bakk said, they probably will need to trim budgets, not increase them.

Before the real budget-writing work begins next year, Bakk plans to invite local government leaders into his committee to discuss the fiscal state-county relationship. But, Bakk said, local officials should go into those meetings with the eyes wide open.

"People should lower expectations," he said.

Many county officials gathered at the Capitol said that finding the true cost of housing state prisoners is difficult. Law requires counties to hold state prisoners, which in many cases means local prisoners are displaced and must be taken to other jails, which costs counties a lot of money.

Some county leaders warned that because of costs the state is not picking up, local needs will not be addressed. For instance, in some counties, roads will not be repaired.

Olmsted County, in southeastern Minnesota, this week sent the state a bill for $655,574.24 as reimbursement for state prisoner cost.

"Minnesota counties no longer can afford to be the state's ATM machine," Olmsted Commissioner Paul Wilson said.

Nobles County Commissioner David Benson said he agrees with fellow county leaders because of the principle of the state not paying the prisoners' full cost.

"Right now, it isn't that big a deal" in Nobles County, Benson said.

Still, he added, Nobles does pay more.

"The cost just hits us," he said. "It comes right out of the property taxes. It's time to call people's attention to this relationship, which is not balanced and respectful."

Larson said Kandiyohi is not losing as much as many counties, though his county housed state prisoners for 3,633 days in the past year, the ninth most in the state.

"We sympathize with a lot of counties," Larson said.

Unlike other counties, Kandiyohi has not had to send its own prisoners to other jails.