County budget: 'The jail is the biggest problem'

2014-06-10T16:40:00Z 2014-06-24T17:26:18Z County budget: 'The jail is the biggest problem'By CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Heading into a new budget year, Yellowstone County’s financial picture generally looks good.

Preliminary information for fiscal year 2015 shows that taxpayers could see a slight decrease in the countywide levy, said Scott Turner, finance director.

The main issue will be how to address jail overcrowding.

“The jail is the biggest problem,” Turner said on Tuesday.

Sheriff Mike Linder wants to expand the women’s wing of the jail to address crowding and there are “ancillary” jail issues, Turner said.

A new women’s wing is estimated to cost about $6.5 million plus another $1.2 million a year in operating and debt service costs, he said.

The jail also needs to replace its 27-year-old control system, which runs the locks and cameras. A new system is estimated to cost $650,000, he said.

“That’s a fairly big-ticket item to address,” Turner said.

Yellowstone County commissioners on Tuesday set public hearings for the preliminary budget.

The hearings on the various department budgets will run daily from 9 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. on June 23-26 in Room 403 of the county courthouse. There are more than 30 budgets.

While the sheriff is using inmate labor programs to keep low-risk offenders out of jail, the jail population numbers are “still higher than we would like,” Turner said.

The county is grappling with the immediate overcrowding problem and with long-term issues of community growth and planning for future detention needs, he added.

Commissioners would like to see if they can expand the jail with existing dollars without putting too much stress on the budget, he said.

“But it’s kind of tough to add that much more to existing revenue. It’s a matter of prioritization,” Turner said.

The board will have to decide what direction to take. The options include moving money from other programs to pay for jail needs, keeping all the jail expenses within the sheriff’s budget, which could mean no raises for sheriff’s department employees, or going to voters with a bond proposal, Turner said.

No decisions have been made so far, but the budgeting process is expected to help guide the county’s approach. “What do most people want?” he asked.

The county also is considering several building projects, Turner said.

The county is planning to remodel the courthouse to make more room for the county attorney offices. As part of that project, the county would move Extension Service from the courthouse to MetraPark.

And MetraPark, Turner said, is working on a new agricultural building for animal events. The large, new multipurpose, dirt-floor building would replace some old barns.

Personnel requests from various departments include three new positions at the jail, two full-time clerks in the clerk of court’s office and one new applications developer in the information technology department, Turner said.

Preliminary expenditure requests total about $97 million, about $2 million more than in the current budget year, Turner said.

The countywide preliminary mill levy, which is assessed on property to raise tax revenue, is about 0.97 mills less than last year’s levy, Turner said.

The decrease is about 0.82 percent.

The lower levy comes from having paid off a MetraPark expansion debt and from no longer having to pay for operations at the former county veteran’s cemetery, which in May became a national cemetery operated by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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