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Jail budget to increase

ALBANY, Ga. -- While revenues have dropped steeply and many county departments are in their third year of slashing budgets, the FY 2011 budget proposal for the Dougherty County Jail has grown almost 10 percent after dropping nearly $3 million this year, documents show.

The increase is a sharp reversal of trends for the jail, which, when combined with the budget of the sheriff's office itself, is a financial beast, comprising almost 40 percent of the county's total general fund budget.

According to documents provided to the Dougherty County Commission's Finance Committee Monday, the jail's budget dropped significantly between the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years.

In FY 2009, which ran from July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009, the jail alone received $13.3 million. For the next fiscal year, July 1, 2009 through June 30 of this year, the budget is predicted to bottom out somewhere around $10.9 million, or roughly $2.4 million less than the previous year.

In the final recommended budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the jail's budget has ballooned to $13.8 million, translating into an increase of 10.85 percent from the previous year, or roughly $3 million.

That amount is almost wholly consumed by increasing costs associated with operations and skyrocketing insurance premiums, Dougherty County Jail Administrator Col. John Ostrander said.

Karen Goff, the county's finance director, told the committee Monday that increases in insurance coverage for the entire Sheriff's Department -- which includes the jail -- would be $790,000.

"That's big for us," Ostrander says. "We're one-third of the county's budget, but we're also roughly one-third of the county's work force. So the personnel benefits and salaries are a sizable portion of our budget."

Ostrander said that jail staff and administrators have tried to cut in every conceivable area to trim operating costs, but that some areas -- such as medical and food services, which are both contracted out to other companies -- grow in terms of costs each year and drag the county along for the ride.

"We factor automatic cost escalators into our budget calculations to try and account for increases in the costs, but they do grow each year and that's something we either have to pay for or go without," Ostrander said. "And when you're talking about medical services; if you deprive the inmates of certain levels of care, we'd end up paying much more in litigation than for the service."

Ostrander said the cost escalators are set around 4.5 percent each year, meaning that the jail staff builds a portion of its budget around the presumption that costs will rise by at least that much in some of its contracted services.

For medical services, the jail forecasts that it will spend $2.8 million next year just on inmate care. That sum includes trips to local doctors' offices, labs for blood work and specialty doctors like oncologists.

That contract, which currently has been awarded to Prison Health Services based in Tennessee, will likely be put out for bid again this coming year, Ostrander said.

Inmates who need emergency care are taken directly to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which provides that service for free to the county -- a cost savings estimated at around $1.1 million in 2009, according to Phoebe's most recent audited financial report.