Adams cities take on sheriff, commission

Bill Christopher
Posted

It has been brewing for quite some time.

Why some Adams County municipal officials waited this long to sue Adams County Sheriff Doug Darr and the Adams County commissioners has been a real puzzle to some of us. The issue of course has to do with the sheriff limiting the number of prisoners sentenced by municipal court judges to be incarcerated at the Adams County Jail.

Five of the Adams County cities joined together and filed their lawsuit recently in Adams County District Court. The cities of Aurora, Commerce City, Federal Heights, Northglenn and Thornton are challenging Sheriff Doug Darr’s authority to impose an ongoing municipal prisoner cap.

Darr contends that the board of county commissioners’ action regarding hiring restrictions and budget cuts has forced him to impose the muni-prisoner cap. Westminster and Brighton did not join in the lawsuit apparently because they have not been affected.

Under Colorado law, the responsibility to build, maintain and operate jails to house convicted prisoners rests with the county governments. This includes convicted municipal prisoners even though their crimes are normally less severe. City governments usually have a few jail cells in their law enforcement or judicial facilities, but these are “holding cells” only. The day-in-day-out incarceration of prisoners including their meals, health care and other daily activities rest with the county sheriff. Funding for these costs is the responsibility of the Board of County Commissioners.

Included in the Adams County property tax mill levy, which we property owners pay, are funds budgeted to “run the jail” by the Sheriff’s employees. The county’s adopted 2013 General Fund budget showed a cost of $32 million to manage the jail and provide security at the Justice Center.

Total “net value” of taxable properties throughout Adams County including incorporated cities and towns is $4.652 billion. Of that total, about $3.5 billion or 75 percent is from taxable land and improvements within Adams County cities and towns. That means approximately $24 million of property tax revenues for the Adams County General Fund was paid by property owners located within the municipalities to partially fund the jail and security operations. But yet when it comes to housing municipal prisoners, cities are slighted with only a maximum of 30 total prisoners at any given time. It seems like there is a bit of an inequity here!

The $32 million cost for the “correctional” part of the Sheriff’s Office budget includes salaries and benefits for 279.25 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. We know that additional staffing would be required to operate existing unused jail facilities to house more prisoners. So, it begs the question of the board of county commissioners and the sheriff why efforts have not been pursued to seek additional funding for jail staffing and operating costs to utilize the available, unused jail facilities?

We haven’t heard or seen any effort by the commissioners or sheriff to seek voter approval on increased taxes to fund expanded use of existing jail facilities. And I have not heard municipal officials telling their constituents that a county-wide property tax increase is needed to incarcerate more municipal prisoners within the existing jail facility. It seems to me that both the county and municipal elected officials should pull together in a cooperative endeavor and seek more funding to utilize remaining capacity at the jail. And as for Sheriff Darr, where is your authority to arbitrarily impose a cap of 30 for all municipal prisoners? This whole mess has floundered much too long. Forget the lawsuit and solve the problem!