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Counties seek money for jails

Nobles County Commissioner David Benson (with mustache) listens while fellow county officials complain that the state is not paying its bills to house state prisoners in county jails. County officials gathered Thursday on the Capitol steps.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota county officials complain they are forced to collect up to $9 million more in property taxes because the state does not fully pay for prisoners it orders counties to hold.

"We're losing money," Kandiyohi County Commissioner Richard Larson said.

To balance the Minnesota budget in 2003, legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed to require counties to house some prisoners in county jails. Those prisoners, who have less than six months to serve on felony sentences, are a state responsibility, but the state never has fully compensated counties for the expense.

Each day a county jail houses a prisoner, it costs anywhere from $55 to more than $100, county officials say. But the state only paid $9 to $13 for the past few years, until payments spiked at $27.24 this year. They are to fall to about $9 next year.

The Association of Minnesota Counties estimates that will cost counties $6 million to $9 million next year, money that must come from taxes paid by local property owners.

County officials, meeting in St. Paul anyway, decided on Thursday to call attention to the situation. They laid hundreds of jail jumpsuits on the state Capitol steps to protest the situation.

The impact varies greatly from county to county, with small-population counties like Lake losing no more than $2,640 next year, the association estimates, for housing just two state felons. But neighboring St. Louis County could lose nearly $540,000 for holding 170 state prisoners.

St. Louis County Commissioner Dennis Fink said the state and county governments need to work together to solve the financial problem. "All units of government are in this economic crisis together," he said.

County leaders called for state-county meetings to find a way that the state can pay more for its inmates.

A key legislator said he will hold such meetings, but county officials should not get their hopes up.

"The challenge is the state doesn't have the money to make changes right now," said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

Nobles County Commissioner David Benson said he agrees with fellow county leaders because of the principle of the state not paying the prisoners' full cost.

"Right now, it isn't that big a deal" in Nobles County, Benson said.

Still, he added, Nobles does pay more.

"The cost just hits us," he said. "It comes right out of the property taxes. It's time to call people's attention to this relationship, which is not balanced and respectful."

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.