E. Valley municipalities say using county facilities saps money, resources
by Gary Nelson - Apr. 25, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic .
Five East Valley cities are considering hiring a private jail company in hopes of saving millions of dollars they now pay to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
The idea has been kicking around among East Valley police departments since Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, citing his tight budget, closed three satellite jails in Mesa and the West Valley in late 2007. It surfaced last week in a meeting of a Mesa City Council committee, which was told the five cities will soon seek proposals from private jail companies.
Arpaio called the idea "ridiculous" and said it is likely to anger taxpayers who already pay a special county sales tax for the jail system.
"I'm against privatization," Arpaio said. "Jails should be a function of government, run by government. All the private companies want to do is make it nice so more people will check into their facilities."
Last year, Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Gilbert and Scottsdale paid the Sheriff's Office a total of almost $15.5 million to book and house inmates accused or convicted of misdemeanors. The county covers those expenses for felony cases.
Besides the fees, the cities also say their resources are sapped when police officers are tied up taking prisoners to the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix. The Mesa Police Department said those trips average three hours, even when traffic is light and there are no complications, such as prisoners' medical conditions.
But Jerry Sheridan, director of detention for the Sheriff's Office, said the department tracks how long it takes to book prisoners. "The average booking time is 19 minutes from the time the officer is at our front door until the time they leave," he said.
Bill Peters, a Mesa police commander, said that city budget cuts have forced it to eliminate four detention employees who used to be responsible for transport. Their replacements, he said, are sworn officers who could be more productively employed fighting crime.
Arpaio said he would be happy to provide transport services to the five cities - for a fee. "They're going to have to pay us a little, but it's cheaper than having a privatized jail," Arpaio said.
The most likely scenario, Peters said, would involve converting a large existing building into a jail within a 5-mile radius of Country Club Drive and U.S. 60 - the area agreed upon by the cities as the most convenient. It would have about 500 beds and ideally be in an industrial, not residential, area.
A private company would then operate the facility, charge the cities and still make a profit.
Peters said the idea must be penciled out before it goes further. "If we don't see significant savings, we're not going to have interest," he said. Peters said he and other police officials visited several California cities that say private jails have made police operations more efficient.
"The proposal has merit," said Mesa Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who chairs the public-safety committee. "A private regional facility does offer the possibility of significantly reduced officer time involvement as well as reduced charges."
But many questions remain, he said. He wants to know how the idea has worked elsewhere and the track record of companies that might apply, including whether they've faced litigation over their operations.
And, Kavanaugh said, "I want to make sure that their facility will comply with required standards, including health care for those in custody."
Sgt. Mark Clark, a Scottsdale police spokesman, said the concept is very preliminary.
"We're certainly open to the idea," Clark said. "But our biggest concern would be if it was a viable alternative for saving our taxpayers money and at the same time providing the level of security for our prisoners that is currently being provided at the county jail."
Sheridan of the Sheriff's Office said the county offers a range of services no private facility is likely to match, from laundry to sophisticated medical and psychiatric care. "The costs are astronomical when you begin to outsource all these functions," Sheridan said.
Phoenix and Peoria considered private jails in 2008 but abandoned the idea.
"Every time they take a serious look at it - the level of service, the quality of the service and the value that they get with the Maricopa County jail system - the idea goes away," Sheridan said. "I'm confident that will happen again."
Sheridan said the county isn't making money on the deal.
"We're a non-profit organization," he said. "We're a government agency. That is exactly what it costs the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to house an inmate for 24 hours. We're not in the business of making a profit."
Maricopa County residents pay a one-fifth-cent jail sales tax that voters approved in 1998 and extended in 2002. It is set to expire in 2022.