Jail closure expected to save county $500K

Local police departments impacted by increased costs for transport


RBC | Nine months after the closure of the Rio Blanco County Detention Center, numbers demonstrating savings to the county have been made available to the HT.

Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola first announced the intention to close the jail and begin housing inmates in the Moffat County Detention Center in a September 2021 interview, followed a week later by an op-ed response to community questions. The Board of County Commissioners was aware of and all three commissioners supported the decision prior to the closure of the jail on Oct. 11, 2021.

Since the jail closure, citizens have expressed frustration that the decision was made without sufficient opportunity for public comment, and current and former officers from the Rangely and Meeker police departments have balked at the additional cost, time, and impact on their departments to transport detainees to Moffat County.

DECLINING INMATE NUMBERS

The 2021 budget for the jail was $1,054,108, with an average of five local inmates housed in the detention center located in downtown Meeker, along with an average of eight inmates held under an agreement with the U.S. Marshal’s office. The average number of inmates has been declining steadily since 2015.

The decline in inmate numbers is partly due to COVID protocols set by the state, instructing law enforcement to give a summons in lieu of an arrest to lessen the risk of COVID transmission in the jail population and state legislation passed in 2021 that reclassified misdemeanors and limited the number of “jailable” offenses. Infractions that once would have landed someone in county jail are now handled with a ticket or a warning, and even some felonies are now subject to a court summons instead of an automatic trip to jail.

STAFFING CHANGES

Staffing changes that came with the closure have also been a topic of discussion. There were nine full-time and two part-time employees at the jail prior to closure. After the closure, there are four full-time – a jail liaison who keeps track of court dates, interacts with Moffat County, and can transport inmates for the local police departments when available; a second full-time position for a records clerk has yet to be hired; and two patrol deputies, also not yet hired. Counting the sheriff and undersheriff, the county has nine on patrol for the county. Adding two more will fully staff the department.

“FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE”

The average jail budget from 2015 through 2021 was $976,587, or about $81K per month. For 2022 year-to-date the jail budget is currently at $228,195, or about $46K per month. If that trend continues, the department is on track to save about $500K this year.

That money is returned to the county’s general fund for the commissioners to reallocate to other county departments. “It’s a fiscally conservative decision,” Mazzola said.

The county is seeking grant funding to outfit the facility as a training center for law enforcement agencies. Such a facility would be the only one of its kind on the Western Slope and has the potential to generate economic benefits for the county. If the time comes that housing inmates in Moffat County’s jail costs more than housing them in Meeker, Mazzola said the jail could be reopened.

IMPACT ON POLICE DEPARTMENTS

While local residents are not likely to notice much of an impact from the jail closure, other local law enforcement agencies have been affected.

Rangely Police Chief Ti Hamblin said his department has made 56 arrests since the county jail closed, of which 33 have been transported to Moffat County.

“The remaining 23 arrests were given a personal recognizance bond (PR) or summoned into court. The most common reason those 23 arrests were summoned into court instead of transported to jail is due to Moffat County deeming those arrests ‘low level crime’ or ‘nonviolent offenses.’ An example of this would be a driving under the influence (DUI) charge. Even though this is an arrestable charge that would have been transported without question to the Rio Blanco County Jail, Moffat does not have the room to house a low-level, nonviolent offense crime (as they see it),” Hamblin said via email.

Hamblin said the RPD has had at least 11 incidents when they’ve encountered someone with a warrant and been told Moffat County is “full” or “short-staffed,” and the individual with the extraditable warrant has been released on a “pinky promise” to appear in court.

“A few times the warrant would be a Rangely local and we would have to call the jail for several days in a row to see if Moffat County had room, reserve a spot, and then go and attempt to find the person with the warrant and take them to jail… We never had this problem when the Rio Blanco County jail was open, pre-COVID,” Hamblin wrote.

According to Hamblin, he is unaware of any offers made by the RBC Sheriff’s Office to transport Rangely prisoners to Moffat County, and that in a work session with the county commissioners last December, the sheriff’s office “made it clear” that Rangely and Meeker police departments would be responsible for their own transports.

Asked about the financial impact on the department, Hamblin said the true numbers are hard to nail down with the cost of gas rising and inflation, but the cost to transport inmates is only going to increase for the Town of Rangely.

“To be fair to Moffat County,” Hamblin said, “They have taken every prisoner that a Rangely PD supervisor has called and stated ‘we need you’ to take this prisoner. We have used the ‘we need you’ sparingly. Moffat County also has taken every mandatory arrest (domestic, violation of protection order). Moffat County’s staff has been great to work with on a personal level.”

Mazzola said the Moffat County jail is less than half occupied on average, and that anytime he has called Moffat County about getting an inmate into the jail, that inmate has been received. Delays, he said, have occurred when temporary holding cells have been full or unavailable due to COVID protocols.

Meeker Chief of Police Ed Thompson said his department has transported 25 inmates to Moffat County since October 2021. The RBCSO has transported three inmates for the Meeker PD and Thompson said the sheriff’s office has stated its willingness to help when they are able.

“The jail closure has impacted our department,” Thompson said via email. “The main staffing impact is removing an officer from the city limits for extended periods of time (generally approximately two hours in transport time alone). However, prior to and after the closure, we always keep at least one officer and one supervisor on call, so there is someone available to respond to any incidents while the transporting officer is away. The Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office is always willing to help when able.”

Thompson said they haven’t encountered problems with Moffat County accepting inmates other than a couple of minor delays.

Financially, the challenges for Meeker PD are similar to Rangely PD, with obvious expenses of wear and tear on vehicles, fuel, and overtime for officers who have to transport an inmate after their shift or officers called in to cover town while another officer is on a transport, which has occurred rarely.


By NIKI TURNER – editor@ht1885.com

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