Johnson County’s long running contract with LaSalle Corrections will expire on Aug. 31 after which the county will resume operation of the Johnson County Jail for the first time in more than a decade.
The county contracted with LaSalle to oversee jail operations in 2010. Another private company, Community Education Centers, oversaw jail operations for a short period before LaSalle and the county ran the jail previous to that.
Commissioners and Johnson County Sheriff Adam King said the change should led to substantial savings for taxpayers.
A breakdown in talks between the county and LaSalle over costs prompted the county’s decision to resume control of the jail, county officials said.
“There was an option of adding another year to LaSalle’s contract,” County Attorney Bill Moore said. “But those negotiations failed and we couldn’t come to terms.”
County officials said LaSalle’s request for an increase in their contract payments played into the decision.
“Nothing against LaSalle,” King said. “But I think at that point it really began to make sense for the county to take back operations of the jail at this time. Financially and operationally it’s going to be better for our taxpayers and give us a lot more opportunity for positive impacts on our staff and inmates.”
The hope, Commissioner Kenny Howell said, was that the county and LaSalle could’ve reached agreement for one more year, or at least a partial year, of continued LaSalle operation past Aug. 31. That was not to be.
“We tried to push LaSalle for more time but couldn’t come to an agreement,” Howell said. “Which has left us crunching numbers in a hurry.”
The breakdown in talks also left commissioners with a one month gap to cover given that LaSalle’s contract runs out at the end of August while the county’s new fiscal budget year doesn’t begin until Oct. 1.
Commissioners held a Tuesday called meeting to address the situation.
“This has been a bit of a rushed deal but today we need to get to the point where we ensure that the jail remains operational after Sept. 1,” County Judge Roger Harmon said.
Between now and then commissioners will coordinate with King and other county officials to determine the budget for the jail once the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
King explained that, as sheriff, he’s responsible for the jail as well as the rest of the sheriff’s office.
“But LaSalle doesn’t work for me,” King said. “I have to ensure that they maintain our facility out there since it’s county owned and honor the constitutional rights of the inmates. But I don’t otherwise run the day-to-day operations out there.”
That will change on Sept. 1, which leaves King and the county to prepare for the changeover upcoming.
The hope is to shift employees now working for and paid by LaSalle into county employment.
“We’re in the early stages of that still but I think the majority want to come over to the county,” King said. “For some that will mean a pay raise and for some a pay cut but the county offers other benefits such as a really good retirement plan.”
Switching from LaSalle to the county won’t be automatic.
“Those who want to transfer over will have to apply to the county and undergo background investigations,” King said. “We want to keep people who have been working in the jail and have that experience but also want to make sure everyone we hire meets our county standards. We’re working on all that now to make sure we’re ready to go on Sept. 1.”
It’s important, King said, to get the right people.
“I understand that paychecks are important,” King said. “Everybody needs to pay their mortgage and bills. But primarily we’re looking for people who are passionate about making a difference. A single jailer who has that mindset can make such a difference in the life of an inmate because they’re in there face-to-face with them eight hours a day.”
Negotiations are also underway to purchase various items of LaSalle equipment at the jail.
“Maintenance tools, handcuffs, inmate clothing and things like that,” King said. “Since a lot of that’s not new we want to pay fair market value not full cost. So we’re also working those details out too.”
Tuesday’s called meeting also addressed the fact that LaSalle’s inmate transfer vehicles will go once the contract expires.
Commissioners to that end authorized the emergency purchase of two Dodge Caravans for $74,864 and five Ford vans for $252,259.
The urgency stems from the fact that the vans have to be ordered now in order to be here by Sept. 1, King said.
The budget adjustments for jail operation costs for September and purchase of the vans won’t affect the county’s current tax rate, commissioners said. The money will come out of county reserve funds instead.
As for next fiscal year and the years after, the cost of maintaining the jail should be less than had the county continued to contract with LaSalle, officials said.
“We plan to continue housing federal inmates, which will bring revenue into the county and offset our costs quite a bit,” King said.
The months between now and Sept. 1 provide time for his office to better determine the costs of food, fuel and other jail costs in order to craft jail-operation budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year.
Harmon said the county’s decision to assume operation of the jail should not affect next year’s tax rate.
King said that educational and other programs recently instituted by him will continue.
“It will affect those programs in a good way,” King said. “There are a lot of things we’re wanting to do. With us running the jail now we have more opportunities to put those programs into place.
Among other goals, the programs, all of which are voluntary, are meant to teach inmates various skills the hope being that, once they get out of jail, they will have marketable skills that can be used to turn their lives around.
“So much of this I wish we could’ve had in place this past year,” King said. “Because we’ve had quite a few inmates who have been in our jail well over a year because of COVID-19 and jury trials being shut down.
“The point is, most of these inmates are our citizens. Many may go to prison after their trials but most of them, once they get out, are going to come back here because most of them are from here. That’s a big point of these programs is to get them some skills or get them started on that at least so that when they do come back they will have some life skills and can do something positive with their lives.”
Commissary and other fees paid by inmates fund the programs, not taxpayer money.