Gasconade, Maries, Osage county officials discuss possibility of a regional jail

By Colin Willard, Staff Writer
Posted 3/29/23

ST. JAMES — Commissioners and law enforcement from Gasconade County, Maries County and Osage County met at the Meramec Regional Planning Commission’s (MRPC) office in St. James on March …

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Gasconade, Maries, Osage county officials discuss possibility of a regional jail


ST. JAMES — Commissioners and law enforcement from Gasconade County, Maries County and Osage County met at the Meramec Regional Planning Commission’s (MRPC) office in St. James on March 20 to discuss if the three counties would want to build a regional jail. Osage County Sheriff Mike Bonham organized the meeting for the counties to review how working together to establish a regional jail could relieve the counties of liability and financial costs associated with running their own jails.

Bonham and Presiding Commissioner Darryl Griffin were the attendees from Osage County. Presiding Commissioner Tim Schulte, Commissioner Jim Holland and Sheriff Scott Eiler attended from Gasconade County. Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman, commissioners Ed Fagre and Doug Drewel and Sheriff’s Deputy Major Scott John attended from Maries County. MRPC Executive Director Bonnie Prigge was also at the meeting.

According to Bonham, the purpose of the meeting was only to gauge the interest of the commissioners of the three counties. The process could be extensive and having the meeting was one of the earliest steps. He clarified that the decision to pursue a regional jail would ultimately fall on the county commissions.

By Bonham’s estimation, the jail would cost between $14 million and $16 million to build. John said the cost was not much more than the cost for one county to build its own jail. He said that he had visited jails in the state to gather information about costs when Maries County was considering building a new jail. The cost he estimated for Maries County to build its own jail was $12 million to $14 million.

“Now you can build one for $14 to $16 (million) that can house three counties,” he said. “So each county eventually can look at spending $12 to $14 (million), or we can spend $16 (million) and take care of all three counties and shed the liability.”

Building a regional jail would mean establishing a regional jail board. The board would consist of the presiding commissioners and the sheriffs of the three counties. Bonham said any liability would fall on the board rather than the counties because the jail would operate as a separate entity.

Bonham said the counties could fund the jail by passing half-cent sales taxes on a ballot vote.

John said that material costs were the reason for the price tag rather than building costs. High-end equipment such as locks, computers, cameras and security systems needed to run a state-of-the-art jail is very expensive.

Drewel asked what a payment plan for building the jail would cost.

Bonham said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has low-interest loans available for groups building jails. Prigge used the high-end of the interest rates to figure that a 20-year loan would cost about $974,000 per year, and a 30-year loan would cost about $755,000 per year.

Stratman asked if it would be possible to get grants to build the jail. Prigge said the project could qualify for partial grants through the USDA though she had not yet seen any specific grants.

John found information from the USDA that said grants typically go to small and impoverished counties. Prigge looked at more grant qualifications and determined that the project could qualify for grants to cover 35 percent of costs if the median income of the counties fell into a particular bracket within the state.

One way Bonham suggested paying for maintaining the jail was to sign a contract with the federal government to reserve a set number of beds for federal prisoners. The entity renting the beds would pay a per-day fee in the likely range of $75 to $85 per day regardless of if someone was actually using the bed. Bonham said that if the jail were crowded to the point that local detainees used federal beds, then the jail would have to move someone out to free the federal bed. Otherwise, the jail could use empty beds.

“With the Vichy airport being so close, the (United States) Marshal Service would love to be able to do that,” he said.

Bonham said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could also have interest in reserving beds.

“They’ve already told us (Maries County) that if we built one, they’d be interested in a contract for 20 beds once it was inspected,” John said. “The problem is the feds will not give you a contract until the jail’s built and they inspect it.”

“Is that Las Vegas rolling the dice?” Holland said.

John said that there are engineering and construction firms that specialize in meeting federal standards for jails. He also said that federal entities pay for transporting prisoners.

“If you have a federal inmate who has to go to court in Kansas City, they pay your employee’s wages for the entire day plus some, and they pay mileage for the vehicle,” he said.

Schulte asked what would happen if the jail were profitable.

Bonham said the statutes allowed for profits to return to the counties, but the details of how much went to each county would ultimately be up to the commissioners to decide. John said the jail could also use the cash flow to maintain facilities and upgrade equipment as needed.

Based on the counties’ sales tax revenue from last year, a half-cent sales tax to support the regional jail’s annual costs would generate about $2.3 million. John mentioned a jail commissary, where inmates can purchase goods, as a way to contribute to the costs of running a regional jail. He said that the commissary at the Maries County Jail generates about $35,000 each year.

“I’m having a hard time seeing where it’s not going to financially be feasible,” John said. “If there’s a sales tax in place, with the ancillary funds like the commissary in place, even if we don’t get a fed bed contract, I think we can make it work.”

John said it would be at least a year before the counties could really start looking at putting the tax funding on the ballot. They would need proposals, engineering and architectural plans and price quotes before thinking about going to the voters for approval.

Prigge said that the USDA funds some feasibility studies, so there could be options for paying costs to research the jail project.

Griffin asked how the counties would determine what portion of the jail’s resources each county would be able to use when the counties would contribute different sales tax values to the jail. Bonham said that his suggestion would be to allocate beds and have counties pay extra if they go over their allocations.

The law enforcement officials compared the average number of people held in their respective jails at any time. John estimated about 18 in Maries County and Bonham estimated about 12 in Osage County. Gasconade County does not have its own jail, but Eiler estimated there were about 17 Gasconade County detainees between the jails in Osage County and Crawford County.

Eiler said that allocating beds would put the counties at the mercy of their judges, and each judge is not consistent with another when it comes to sentencing. He mentioned a sentence in Gasconade County that he had never seen before. The judge sentenced the person to one year in county jail.

“That’s a whole year of someone that I have to pay for in someone else’s county jail,” he said. “And I just tied up their bed for a year.”

Schulte said that last year Gasconade County spent about $188,000 on housing prisoners without factoring in other costs such as transportation.

Drewel asked what would happen if one county dropped out of the regional jail sometime in the future.

“If any one county drops out that’s the end of it because the other two couldn’t afford it,” he said. “I’m kind of leery of it now.”

“Unless you could get another county to come in there,” Griffin said.

Bonham said that more counties could join, but they must border at least one of the counties already involved in the jail.

“The more counties you’ve got, you still have basically the same electric bill and the same water bill,” Drewel said.

Bonham said that the three counties present made sense because of their “three corners” spot in the Belle area, but if anyone knew of a bordering county that would want to participate, they could include them in future discussions.

If the commissioners had an interest in pursuing the regional jail idea, Bonham said one of the next moves would be to determine where to put the jail. The three counties meet in the area of Belle and Bland, so the majority agreed that area would be the ideal spot. Bonham said that Belle Mayor Daryl White had already called him to express interest in building the jail in Belle.

“If you have a mayor already interested in having it, that’s a big step,” Bonham said. “Usually it’s anti (jail). ‘I don’t want this in my backyard.’”

Fagre asked if Bonham had a specific spot of land in mind for the jail site. Bonham said that he did, but he doubted it would be available by the time the counties would want to commit to purchasing the land.

Drewel asked if the airport in Vichy would be a better spot because it already has the infrastructure and it would make transporting federal prisoners easier.

John said that building the jail in Vichy would put it too far away from Osage County and Gasconade County. At that point, it would be easier for them to transport to other county jails rather than the regional jail. Using land at the airport would also require Phelps County to join in on the project, but it is unlikely Phelps County would want to participate because it is already working on constructing a jail.

Bonham said that it would create jobs and help relieve some of the struggles that Osage County and Maries County have had finding and retaining jail staff. He said that statute would not force the counties to close the jails that they already have and that if there were a regional jail, the jailers would transport detainees from there to their court appointments.

John said that two people would be enough to staff a state-of-the-art jail at any given time because of their many security measures.

Another possibility for the regional jail would be establishing a video courtroom at the location.

“That cuts our liability of transportation,” Bonham said. “It cuts our transportation costs down, bailiff costs, and so on, etc.”

Bonham said that he did not want to get too far ahead in thinking about the project, but the counties would also have an opportunity to combine their public safety answering points (PSAP), which is where emergency services receive 911 calls. He said that there is money available through the state for new PSAPs.

“Didn’t we (Maries County) just spend $600,000 or $700,000 on that?” Drewel asked because Maries County recently upgraded its 911 dispatch equipment.

John said that the money spent was only on equipment and software, which they could move into a new PSAP.

“The writing’s on the wall,” he said. “They (state officials) are eventually going to mandate that you have regional PSAPs because they’ve restructured their PSAP districts. It’s almost impossible to get a grant for your PSAP right now unless you are a large PSAP or you are a PSAP that’s working with another PSAP.”

John said that two years ago Maries County applied for a PSAP grant on its own and received no funding. When it partnered with Phelps County the next year, it received the grant money.

“During the building of this it would be a good idea to have in mind to expand it to put a PSAP there and dispatch all three counties,” John said.

Griffin said Osage County would not want to give up its 911 center because the people who work in dispatch are protective of the community and they would not want someone from outside it handling emergency calls.

“I’m a numbers guy, and I’d have to look at a lot of spreadsheets for me to say yay, nay or maybe,” Holland said. “I’m not saying I’m opposed to it or for it. I just don’t know enough about it.”

“I didn’t bring the numbers because this was a meeting to kick the can around and say ‘if you’re good with it, we’re good with it,’” Bonham said.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Schulte said. “I do. But is it going to be good right now or in the next two years to go to the voters? I don’t think the appetite is there for it.”

“I think it’s a good thing to think about and talk about because there’s no doubt that the jail is a drag down on the county,” Griffin said. “It isn’t up for me to decide. Put it out for the voters and they decide.”

“The ball is truly in your court, and we (the sheriffs) recognize that,” Bonham told the commissioners. “I know you guys have a lot to think about, and just know that we’re not telling you one way to do anything.”