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County Board puts sheriff on defense on jail contract costs

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 5:19 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 11:38 p.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren advised the County Board not to act in haste when its decade-old contract to house federal inmates at the county jail expires next year.

While revenues took a significant dip last year – the program grossed $542,131 compared to $2.5 million in 2012 and $4.6 million the year before that – Nygren called the program a winner that has brought almost $28 million into county’s coffers since the contract took effect.

Nygren gave the 30-minute presentation to counter what he said was contradicting information about the program’s worth, fueled predominantly by a 2013 study aimed at attempting to capture more money per inmate per day.

“Once it starts costing you money, it’s time to quit, but right now it’s a pretty good pony to ride,” Nygren said.

But several County Board members expressed concern over what they said were two sets of numbers. In a testy exchange, board member John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, questioned outright whether the program was in fact running at a net gain as Nygren said.

“I can only make decisions as good as the information that’s received,” board member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, said.

County government in 2003 inked a deal with the federal government to house up to 256 detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in exchange for $6.4 million to help pay for expanding the jail. Fifty of the beds are reserved for the Marshals, with the remaining 206 allocated for ICE.

The contract stipulates the government can hold people awaiting trial on federal charges, people sentenced and waiting to go to federal prison, and people waiting for an immigration hearing or deportation. It went into effect upon the completion of the third-floor expansion in 2005.

Revenue has ebbed and flowed significantly since. It went from losing $76,000 in its first year to making $3.4 million the next and $4 million in 2007, according to numbers presented by Nygren.

County Board members just last month approved a revised contract with the Marshals increasing the rate from $85 to $95 an inmate per day, and increasing the hourly rate for transporting inmates from $34 to $46.48 an hour. The new agreement replaces rates last set in 2008.

But almost immediately after the increase, the Marshals withdrew their inmates and have left the beds empty in favor of cheaper locations, Nygren said. While he called McHenry County a pioneer a decade ago, it now has much more competition from other governments seeking to get in on the federal revenue.

“Sometimes when you win, you lose,” Nygren said.

But a proposal the county received last year tells a different tale of profitability to skeptical County Board members.

The county entered into a $60,000 agreement with Summerill Group, a Washington, D.C.-based firm, to get more money from housing federal inmates. Its 2013 proposal placed the cost to the county at $131 an inmate.

Nygren said Summerill’s analysis was designed to get more money from the federal government.

“It gives us a skewed idea of how much it costs to run the program,” Nygren said.

That brought some County Board members back to the question skeptics raised when they voted in May to accept the increased per diem for the Marshals – they want a definitive number and can’t get one.

Board member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, asked his fellow members, particularly Chairwoman Tina Hill and Finance and Audit Committee Chairwoman Mary McCann, to come up with a way to get that answer, and fast, before talk begins on whether to renew the contract that expires in October 2015.

“We have to come up with a plan and we have six, 12 months to do it,” Provenzano said.

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