EDITORIAL: Get Out of Jail, Free… Part Five

Read Part One

We humans have expectations, and most often, things turn out pretty much the way we thought they would.

Now and then, we get disappointed. We think our lives are headed in a certain direction, and then it all goes south… and we find ourselves distraught over a relationship that turned sour… a prospective job that dried up… a property sale that failed to pan out… an unexpected health crisis…

But sometimes, after the smoke clears — maybe months or years later — we realize that, even though our expectations went up in flames, things actually turned out “for the best.”

When Archuleta County Sheriff Rich Valdez was elected in 2014 to fill the seat vacated by Pete Gonzalez, he fully expected to supervise the Archuleta County Detention Center — an operation with a budget of almost a million dollars. That expectation was frustrated when the jail was flooded in April 2015 during a lengthy rainstorm and the Board of County Commissioners subsequently decided to abandon the 30-year-old jail and pursue an expensive alternative: a new “Justice Center.”

Thus began a very different routine, involving the transport of inmates to and from the La Plata County Jail in Durango — while the BOCC schemed and argued for two years about a future jail facility that they clearly could not afford to build.

Is it possible… that things are turning out, “for the best?”

We’re here listening to Sheriff Valdez, speaking to the three County Commissioners on May 2, talking about transport of arrested persons to the La Plata County jail:

“So we’ve had 122 transports to Durango [for the first three months of 2017]. That’s not the number of inmates; that’s the number of transports. So we’ve figured the cost of the fuel and the overtime for the employees. So we’ve spent a total of $28,840 just in fuel. That’s our expenses in fuel.”

An intriguing number for the Board of County Commissioners to ponder.

According to Google, the distance from downtown Pagosa Springs to the La Plata County jail is 58.1 miles. So, figure 120 miles round-trip. If my vehicle were getting 12 miles to the gallon, then one trip should consume about 10 gallons. Current price in Pagosa for Premium gas is about $2.69 per gallon. So each trip should cost $26.90 in fuel… according to my pocket calculator.

We were told the deputies made 122 transports between January 1 and April 30? According to my pocket calculator, that comes out to $3,282 in fuel costs. If my vehicle were getting 12 miles to the gallon.

But somehow, the Sheriff’s deputies spent $28,840? Are these vehicles getting less than 2 miles per gallon? Or maybe the Sheriff got his decimal point in the wrong place?

Sheriff Valdez continued his summary of expenses:

“And we spent $7,054 in overtime pay.”

He also stated that his department is averaging about $17,956 per month, payable to the La Plata County jail, for housing our inmates.

Again, some intriguing numbers. My calculator tells me that — if we accept the Sheriff’s claim about fuel expenses — the cost of transporting inmates to Durango, and housing them there, has been costing the Archuleta County taxpayers almost $30,000 per month. Not exactly pocket change.

But let’s reckon the monthly cost, if we had our own jail here in Archuleta County. (Recognizing that we actually do have a jail here, but it’s been abandoned, for some reason.) For example, let’s say we built a new $8 million jail, and borrowed the money at 4% interest on a 30-year mortgage.

You can easily find amortization calculators online, such as this one, which suggests that the community’s taxpayers would be on the hook for payments — principal and interest — of about $38,193 per month. (This would no doubt make some investment bankers very happy.)

But… we would also need to staff and manage our new jail 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. How much would that cost? Well, we could refer to Archuleta County’s 2015 budget — the most recent year that the County budgeted for full-time staffing and maintenance of our existing County detention center.

Looks like the Sheriff would have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $990,000 running our downtown jail in 2015… if the roof hadn’t sprung a leak, and caused the BOCC to abandon the facility.
That comes to about $83,000 a month for running a jail in Pagosa Springs.

So we have an interesting comparison at hand. The Archuleta County Sheriff is telling the BOCC that he’s spending about $30,000 transporting and keeping our inmates in Durango. That’s $360,000 per year, and it requires a deputy to make maybe one trip per day to Durango — a bit more than the number of miles driven by one of our local Mountain Express buses every day.

But if we built a new jail here in Archuleta County, and staffed it full-time, it would appear that we — the taxpayers — would be forking out $1.2 million each year, for the next 30 years.

Is it possible that housing our inmates in Durango costs one-third the price of doing it ourselves?

I realize the above numbers are just rough calculations, but I had them checked by a friend of mine who is a retired computer programmer. I also submitted them to Sheriff Valdez yesterday afternoon, in hopes that he could offer some clarifications. I would certainly welcome his response.

I also presented these numbers to the BOCC during ‘public comment,’ at their regular meeting on Tuesday, May 16. The commissioners do not normally respond to public comments, but Commissioner Steve Wadley — himself a former law enforcement officer — took the opportunity to assure me that I am misunderstanding the situation, and that our community does in fact need a new detention center and Sheriff’s office.

Mr. Wadley did not, however, dispute the numbers.

As discussed in Part Four, yesterday, the requirements for the construction and operation of a county jail have undergone significant changes in the past 50 years, as a result of federal and state court rulings — in response to inmate lawsuits. As a result of these changes, the cost of building and running a jail have skyrocketed.

There are alternatives available, however, to a small, rural county. Reasonable alternatives.

Let’s talk about that, before we spend $20 million on a jail that gives us a negative return on our investment.

Read Part Six…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.