A move by Dutchess County officials to address overcrowding in its county jail is having fiscal repercussions across the river where the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office is poised to lose a major source of revenue — boarding Dutchess inmates.
Since 2005, when the state declined to renew variances allowing the chronically overcrowded Dutchess County Jail to operate over capacity, the county has spent millions boarding inmates at other facilities. The primary beneficiary has been Ulster County, which opened a new modern jail in 2007. At one point, Ulster boarded an average of 100 inmates daily, mostly from Dutchess, generating some $1.8 million in revenue based on a rate of $85 per day per inmate. In Dutchess, meanwhile official resistance to building a new county jail or significantly expanding the old one kept a steady stream of inmates — and jail fees — flowing from Poughkeepsie to Kingston.
That changed last year when Dutchess County introduced temporary housing pods on the grounds of its county jail. Since then, the flow of inmates from Dutchess has slowed to a trickle. Boarding fees from Sullivan County and the federal government — which prefers to house inmates near airports in Albany and Newburgh where “Con Air” operates — have also dried up. Next year, Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum said, he expects to board just six inmates per day.
The loss of inmates, VanBlarcum said, does not come with a corresponding decline in costs since the jail operates under contractual obligations to maintain the same staffing levels regardless of inmate count. VanBlarcum said the only savings were modest declines in overtime costs related to transporting inmates. The decline in revenue has forced Van Blarcum to cuts some $250,000 from his 2017 budget. The cuts include putting off implementation of electronic records keeping at the jail’s infirmary and delaying the purchase of a spare motor for the department’s patrol boat.
“We nickel-and-dimed it,” said VanBlarcum.
Nonetheless, in his recent budget address, County Executive Mike Hein singled out the Sheriff’s Office as a major drain on county revenue amounting to 40 percent of the tax levy (or 10 percent of the total county budget). Hein praised the work of the department and specifically noted VanBlarcum’s effort to cut costs, but singled out the decline in boarding fees as a sign of, he said, “the gap that is growing between our revenue and expenses.”
VanBlarcum, however, said that the loss of boarding fees had been anticipated well before county officials began preparing the budget. VanBlarcum added that his office rarely spent much, if any, of the inmate boarding fees, rolling the money instead into the county’s general fund.
“Once those temporary [pods] were set up we knew we’d be sucking wind for inmates,” said VanBlarcum. “It was nothing unexpected.”