ELYRIA — An offshoot of the failed attempt by county officials to raise the sales tax will result in the closure — again — of Elyria’s jail, which since March 2012 has been used exclusively by the Lorain County Jail as its women’s facility.
The state-of-the-art jail closed in October 2009 because of Elyria’s own budget restrictions. When the county stepped in, it was seen as the best way to remedy the problem of having an empty facility and crowding at the county jail on Murray Ridge Road, which is in the same complex as the Sheriff’s Department administrative offices.
It allowed female prisoners to be housed away from male inmates and lessened the number of actual prisoners in the main facility, which can creep as high as 500 on any given day in the summer.
The county jail is set up to handle 422 male and female prisoners, but the population often is higher. There were 440 inmates jailed Thursday, which includes the women in the Elyria facility.
Yet, just as Elyria looked to shuttering the jail in its tough economic times, Sheriff Phil Stammitti is looking to do the same to offset his tight budget without jeopardizing the department’s road patrol division. Housing all of the prisoners under one roof again will reduce the jail budget by $300,000 from the budget request of 2013, which included the expense of five new corrections officers who were in the process of being hired but were never actually employed.
Stammitti said he can operate the county jail for a little more than $12 million. That is on top of the more than $4.9 million budget from the general fund that pays for a majority of the road deputies.
“As long as you leave my deputy force in place, I can make do at the jail,” Stammitti said.
Stammitti, who won a re-election bid a year ago, recommended Wednesday that the county commissioners sign off on closing the women’s facility as soon as possible by sending a letter to Elyria city officials informing them of the intent to opt out of the yearly agreement. A clause in the contract calls for at least 90 days’ notice.
County Commissioner Ted Kalo said the board would send formal notice to Elyria as soon as possible.
“We understand we have to do this, and we appreciate the sheriff working with us in light of the sales tax failing,” he said.
Sheriff’s Capt. Jack Hammond, director of the Corrections Division, said the female inmates will be moved back to the main campus as soon as possible. A female pod will be opened up by shifting male inmates to other parts of the jail.
Stammitti said it has been his long-held stance that some nonviolent offenders are not best served in the jail and, when it’s appropriate, they will be released.
Operating the women’s annex in Elyria opened up 54 beds in the main jail. But it also came with its drawbacks that, until recently, the county was able to absorb. Transportation between the two facilities was a cost, but medical care has proven to be more costly.
“When something happens at the jail, there is a nurse right there that can assess is this a heart attack or something else, but when something happens at the women’s facility, no one wants to be the one to decide if they can just wait for the nurse. The answer is to call LifeCare and send them to the hospital,” Hammond said.
Stammitti said he plans to honor other portions of the agreement during that 90-day period, including housing but not charging Elyria the $75 per day per diem for offenders charged under city ordinances, and handling DNA collection for felony prisoners.
“I truly regret doing this because that jail gave us the proper housing for our females,” he said. “It was a perfect situation for us, and if we could pick it up and just move it to use, we would still use it. But at the end of the day, we have to protect our core, and that’s the road patrol and the jail.”
Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely said the two agencies didn’t exchange money in the agreement, but the takeaway far exceeds any monetary value. He is still analyzing how the decision would affect the city and his department.
“But I can say that it takes away a place to put prisoners and really that building is best used as a jail,” he said.
Whitely said his own budget concerns will not allow him to reopen the jail any time soon. The number of officers in his department has dipped down too low to afford him the luxury of pushing to reopen the city jail under the city’s management.
“The best hope is for somehow the county comes up some kind of ability to open it up again,” he said.
County commissioners had hoped voters would increase the sales tax — even though such a measure has failed time and again — and even dangled the carrot of a rollback of 1.4 mills of inside millage, essentially an unvoted property tax, to entice voters to pass a 0.5 percent increase for the next three years. Had it passed, the county would have brought in roughly $8.3 million more annually.
But the effort failed and now budget talks center on how to deal with a projected budget deficit of $1.3 million, a revision downward of the $4 million to $6 million deficit originally projected after the issue failed and the county Budget Commission increased the county’s projected revenue for next year.