Lee County Supervisors raise inmate housing costs

Nov. 23—TUPELO — Lee County officials approved a 60% increase in the rate they charge other agencies to house inmates at the county jail. The move is to balance the increasing costs of operating the jail.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to raise the jail's inmate per diem from $25 a day to $40 with little discussion. The $25 per diem was set in 1995 when the jail opened and has never increased. At the juvenile detention center next to the adult jail, the per diem for cities and other counties to house inmates is $120 per day. Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said that the price was set by Lee County Youth Court.

"This is trying to get us to break even on the housing of prisoners," County Administrator Bill Benson said of the increase.

The cost came up during a previous meeting when jail officials addressed the board about the increase, noting that the cost of housing an inmate was close to $41 a day. Housing costs include maintenance to the jail, salaries for guards and jail officials, food, clothing, and other necessities.

Johnson said he has been trying to get an increase in the per diem for several years, but the board would never approve it. He said he has repeatedly brought it up during the budgeting process. The inequity of the per diem was also mentioned in studies of three different consultants hired to look at the aging jail facility and the possibility of building a new jail.

"There was more going out than coming in. We had to do something. We have been looking at it for several years," Johnson said.

The matter came to a head recently when Johnson had to look to an outside facility to house any overflow of inmates. He initially reached an agreement with Itawamba County at a per diem of $40. The price was later renegotiated down to $35.

"For us to only charge $25 to house other inmates and we now have to to pay $40 to house our own inmates, that was ridiculous," Johnson said. "Paying that much more was something I was not comfortable with."

Johnson looked at his budget and broke down the actual costs of what it takes to house 200 inmates per day.

"It came out pretty close," Johnson said. "Being a good steward of the taxpayer's money, we had to do something."

Tupelo Mayor Todd Jordan, who attended the meeting when the board previously discussed the matter, told the board at the time that the city would be able to eat the cost but also told the Daily Journal that the city was currently working with Itawamba County on a jail contract for overflow inmates.

Tupelo Chief Financial Officer Kim Hanna said the city anticipated the cost increase and added more to the inmate housing fund to make up for the variable. She noted that while it would not take an immediate budget amendment to shoulder the increase, the city council would likely have to approve a budget amendment to shore up the fund by the end of the fiscal year.

Johnson said he reached out to police chiefs around the county, so they knew it was a possibility, noting that the increase would "be tough for them," but the jail needed it to function.

Tupelo Police Chief John Quaka said the sheriff's office reserves 10 beds in the adult jail but routinely goes over that number to accommodate the department. He said the city knew the increase was on the horizon.