County Jail: 20 years of private operation

The Columbiana County Jail complex as seen from the air in June of 2018. (Photo by Patti Schaeffer)

(Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a two-part story examining issues regarding the Columbiana County Jail)

LISBON –In 1998, the Columbiana County Jail became the only one in Ohio ever to be operated by a private company, a distinction it still holds 20 years later.

While almost everyone would agree the controversial decision saved the county millions of dollars over the years, many have begun to wonder if county commissioners should revisit the decision in light of the recent publicized reports of problems at the jail.

Privatization of the county jail came about for one reason: County commissioners believed the jail could be operated much cheaper by a private company. During the 1990s, county finances were extremely tight, forcing commissioners to look for ways to save money where they could. County finances stabilized in the early 2000s, when a 0.5 percent increase in the 1 percent county sales tax was made permanent.

A federal lawsuit had been filed in the early 1990s over conditions at the old jail, forcing commissioners to build a larger modern facility west of town on County Home Road for $8.49 million. The 192-bed jail consists of a minimum-security wing — a converted building that was once part of the county home complex — and a new maximum-security wing.

The old jail, located in downtown Lisbon, was closed intermittently in 1997 and inmates were housed in the Mahoning County Jail as commissioners tried to decide whether to privatize operations as they prepared to move to the new location. By late 1997, they decided to contract with CiviGenics Inc., which took over operations Jan. 1, 1998. Every board of commissioners since has renewed the contract every two years.

County Commissioner Mike Halleck was the architect of privatization and he believes the decision likely cost him the 1998 election. Halleck did not run again for commissioner until 2010 and won, and he was re-elected in 2014. He faces re-election this year.

Every board of commissioners has renewed the contract since 1998, and Halleck stands by his support for privatizing the county jail, estimating the county has saved more than $20 million since 1998.

“There is no question it is saving money. The question is how much,” he said.

An analysis performed by the newspaper in 1999 showed the county saved more than $1 million the first year. CiviGenics was paid $1.66 million in 1998 compared to the $2.78 million spent by commissioners in 1996 — the last full year the jail was run by the sheriff. No analysis has been performed since.

CiviGenics ran the jail from 1998 until 2007, when it was purchased by Community Education Centers. The GEO Group acquired CEC in early 2017 and it now operates the facility. GEO is paid based on a per inmate fee schedule, plus reimbursement for some medical expenses. In 2017 the company was paid a record $3.94 million, based on an average daily inmate population of 164.

The question is can the county operate the jail for what it is costing to pay GEO? To provide some perspective, the newspaper contacted three Ohio counties closest in size to learn what they pay to operate their jails in 2017. The following is a list of those counties, starting with Columbiana:

Columbiana County, population 107,841 as of the 2010 census

Size: 192 beds, as approved by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections

Cost: $3.94 million, excluding utilities

Total Staff: 62

Starting hourly wage for corrections officer: $10.91 (recently increased to $14)

Ashtabula County, population 104,679

Size: 160 beds

Cost: $2.5 million, excluding utilities

Total Staff: 25

Starting pay: $18.34

Allen County, population 106,331

Size: 216 beds

Cost: $3.78 million, excluding utilities

Total Staff: 49

Starting pay: $16.87

Wayne County, population 115,537

Size: 120 beds

Cost: $3.54 million, excluding utilities

Total Staff: 40

Starting pay: $13.84, $17.10 if a deputy

Halleck pointed out GEO pays the utilities for the entire complex, which also houses the sheriff’s office and county coroner’s office. The combined water and sewer bill last year was $207,524, and GEO is billed directly for the electricity and gas, which he said totals about $240,000 annually. These are all expenses the county would resume paying if the sheriff’s office were operating the jail.

Commissioner Jim Hoppel, who voted with Halleck in 1997 to privatize jail operations, believes the last several years were an anomaly, with the inmate population inflated by the spike in drug busts due to the opioid crisis. “The last couple of years have been an exception for us. Most of the time we’ve been around $3.3 million to $3.4 million,” he said.

Hoppel doubts whether the county sheriff’s office could resume operating the jail for what they pay GEO.

“We might have a chance, but if it’s like before, that our corrections officers make as much as the deputies, then, no I don’t think we could go back,” especially if the COs were to unionize, which would likely happen, he said.

Halleck said he has always been willing to consider any plan to resume county operation of the jail but none has ever been submitted, even though he has told county Sheriff Ray Stone to submit a plan.

“I have no ideology over who runs the jail. I just want it to be run effectively and efficiently,” he said. “If the sheriff and his people want to take it back, they should submit a plan, and we will be glad to consider it. If they could run it cheaper, I’d do it in a minute.”

Stone, who is still legally responsible for jail operations, has no intention of submitting a plan because he believes commissioners would not provide him with sufficient funding to operate the jail and sheriff’s office.

“I was told we cannot run the jail … Anytime the subject comes up he (Halleck) tells me we would have no road patrol,” he said, adding his road patrol is understaffed already.

Halleck said that comment was taken out of context because he does not believe the sheriff can operate the jail for less, nor does Stone for that matter, based mostly on the big difference in wages and benefits and the fact the county would have to resume paying all utilities.

“The only thing I’ve told him is if they took the jail back something might have to be compromised, and that could be the road patrol” because of the additional expense that would be incurred, he said.

The current contract with GEO is up for renewal on Dec. 31, 2019, and Halleck said they would consider any plan submitted by Stone, and the sheriff would be given a “reasonable amount” of funding to operate the jail. He defined “reasonable amount” as comparable to what they pay GEO.

Commissioners are concerned about county finances going forward because the federal government told Ohio it could no longer charge state and local sales taxes on Medicaid managed-care providers after June 30, 2017. The state estimated the county would start losing $2.1 million in sales tax revenue annually starting in 2018. To prepare for this, commissioners have placed aside about $10 million in excess revenue over the past several years.

(Tomorrow: Problems at the jail cause officials to scrutinize its operations.)