Havre Daily News
The Hill County Detention Center is near capacity and the sheriff is asking the County Commission for another staffer to help out.
Sheriff Greg Szudera asked for an 8 percent budget increase in a proposal submitted to the commissioners to cover new personnel and equipment. The county is also looking at ways to pay for inmates' medical costs through adding fees.
The county jail can hold 79 inmates, Szudera said. Today it has 69 inmates and on Monday there were 71.
The Hill County commissioners ask each department to prepare a two-part proposed budget in June, one that holds the line on expenses, and an addendum that includes additional expenses.
The base budget Szudera requested is for about $1.3 million. He is asking for $111,375 over the base expenses, which includes extra personnel and equipment costs.
Commissioner Doug Kaercher said Monday that getting additional staff is a "quite a high priority."
Decisions about department budgets must wait until the beginning of August, however, when the Montana Department of Revenue tells the county what the taxable value is in the county, Kaercher said. That number tells the commissioners what the county's budget can be for the fiscal year that began this month.
Szudera has asked for a full-time transportation officer and a full-time jail controller/dispatcher to take the place of two part-time dispatch/controller positions.
The transportation officer would allow corrections officers and deputies to concentrate on their primary duties, and the full-time dispatcher/controller position would mean more stability with fewer rehirings, Szudera said today.
On June 27, in a contract negotiation meeting, Tom Bivins, field representative with the Montana Public Employees Association, said Sheriff's Office staffers believe the current level of staffing at the jail represents a safety concern.
"I don't know that the union is at loggerheads with the county, but when there is a problem someone needs to examine the problem and find a way to solve it," Bivins said in an interview last week.
The number of inmates in the county jail is up by more than 20 people from the population two months ago. Szudera has said that crime peaks in the summer and the prison population normally increases then.
One of the union's suggestions to alleviate stress on detention staff was for a transportation officer. The officer would be responsible for taking inmates to court, the hospital or to other facilities, Szudera said. Detention staff and deputies do the transports now, he said.
"The demands are made for that much transortation in the state," Szudera said. Female inmates sentenced to prison must be sent to the Montana Women's Prison in Billings, and other transfers mean long-distance travel.
"It puts a strain on the deputies I have available to answer calls," he said.
Having detention staffers, who are also trained deputies, do the transfers is not ideal either, Szudera said. The chief detention officer currently does some transports, as does the detention administrator.
"He still needs to be working the floor," Szudera said.
Szudera said the addition of extra jail controller hours and a new position will be "sufficient" to cover the added duties of operating a full jail.
About 15 detention officers are employed at the jail. The Sheriff's Office currently employs five full-time deputies, as well as two recently hired two probationary deputies. A retirement has left another opening, and Szudera said he may be losing a deputy to the Montana Highway Patrol, which recently instituted a pay raise.
Filling vacancies "always presents a problem, especially when the Highway Patrol is getting much more money than a sheriff's deputy," Szudera said.
The starting salary for a sheriff's deputy is $13.39 an hour, Szudera said. The Highway Patrol's starting salary is now $12.90, but the state Legislature approved an increase that will be determined in October based on an average of eight counties in the state. Szudera said that average is more than what Hill County pays because some larger counties in the state pay deputies based on the county population.
Szudera has also asked for about $67,000 for new equipment, including money for a new patrol car and for upgrading the county's radio system.
"My main concern is that the Northern Tier radio project is going to be implemented here very soon," Szudera said. "In order for me to talk on that system, I'm going to have to need new radios." That project will allow agencies across northern Montana to communicate more easily.
In his proposal, Szudera included $2,500 for continued training and equipment for the jail's rapid response team, which is trained to respond to jail riots.
The county recently contracted with a physician and nurse to see inmates at the jail. Undersheriff Don Brostrom said the positions will probably save the county money in the long run because the county pays for emergency room and hospital visits by inmates.
The commissioners Monday discussed the possibility of charging inmates a few dollars for nurse visits. Brostrom said the money would help pay the cost of the employee and might discourage unnecessary visits.
The county has also begun to collect a small fee from the entities whose inmates it holds on contract, such as Blaine County and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Contracts for holding inmates will automatically renew on Aug. 1.