Teller Jail House Escapes Red Ink

by Rick Langenberg:

 

 

 

 

The 110-bed Teller County jailhouse in Divide may finally escape from a tough financial plight. After years of incurring reams of red ink and encountering much scrutiny from the Teller County Commissioners, a situation that created bad blood between a former sheriff and the current board chairman, the jail is back in the black.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the jail’s overall net fund is still way in the hole and may never completely recover due to accumulating building and debt payments that began in 1995. The jail’s fiscal situation got more complicated when the county stopped using a private contractor in 1999 and put the entire operation under the reign of the sheriff’s department. Its total net assets are now listed at minus-$1.89 million. Still, a facility, jokingly dubbed by locals as the “Divide Hilton,” is showing definite signs of improvement in the financial column, according to auditors and county officials. Last week, an annual audit by the Denver-based Rubin Brown LLP firm demonstrated a much more robust picture for the Teller jail and the county as a whole. According to their report, the jail in 2011 recorded a net profit of about $74,000. That represents the amount of revenue taken in from prisoner charges and services, minus the amount of expenses tabulated for the year.

The auditors attributed the jail’s rise in fortunes to efforts made towards “aggressively marketing our facility to obtain external revenue through increased numbers of prisoners from other entities.” On the surface, that profit figure may not sound too overwhelming. But compared to the 2010 jail finances, when the facility incurred a nearly $600,000 net loss, it may be time for a celebration party. For years, the subject of the Teller jail finances had elected leaders ready to pull the panic button and to consider alternatives. According to 2010 audit figures, the jail was staring at an accumulated total net loss fund of nearly $2 million. “The main problem with the jail is that it has lost money for 12 out of the last 14 years,” said Teller County Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius in a previous assessment made in the spring of 2011. “You can’t just continue to operate like that.” Ignatius was often critical of the stand of former Sheriff Kevin Dougherty in running the facility. He accused Dougherty of refusing to deal with financial realities in operating the jailhouse. But Dougherty, who actually served as the first Teller jail administrator, argued that the county was dealt a bad hand when the state started using facilities outside of Colorado for housing extra inmates and cancelled its annual contract with Teller without any notice. He also noted that many jail facilities, which are now run by county governments, find themselves in the red. More federal prisoners however, in the last year and a half, a new sheriff administration, headed by Mike Ensminger, has taken an aggressive campaign to court more federal prisoners from such agencies as the U.S. Marshall’s Office, the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Agency and even some military outlets.

Apparently, the new effort has worked, with a three-fold hike in prison counts in certain times of 2011, compared to the previous year, according to county statistics. “We are doing well under some very difficult financial conditions,” said Ensminger, in a previous interview with the Mountain Jackpot, when this approach was first outlined. “The jail is doing very well,” admitted Teller County Finance Director Laurie Litwin. She also was happy with the overall audit results for Teller County that suggested a much improved financial picture due to cost savings done by department leaders. These figures have indicated that Teller reaped an extra $1 million-plus in its general fund due to extra revenue it received and action the county government took to not spend nearly $900,000 in budgeted dollars. “Overall , the county has strengthened its financial position by adhering to budget policies and long-term capital plans, which are to maintain the county’s operating levels, fund balances and capital reserves during a weakened economic period,” stated the auditors in their recent report. “Everyone did what they could to hold the line on spending while we are in this current economic climate,” added Litwin. According to county leaders, that trend will undoubtedly continue. Audit figures, compiled by Rubin Brown, show that sales tax revenue is downright flat on a county-wide basis, with monies collected showing no improvements from 2007. Based on their report, property tax collections have demonstrated an upward trend and are keeping the county in business. But with declining property values, that trend could experience a slight downturn. The first 2013 county budget meeting is scheduled for July 26 in the Centennial Building in Cripple Creek at 7 p.m.