Glacier County voters will have the chance to approve a public safety levy on their Nov. 3 ballots. The levy will help fund the Glacier County Sheriff’s Office and would add an additional $908,089 to its budget.
That translates to an increase tax of $48.89 on a house valued at $100,000 or $97.79 for a house valued at $200,000. The levy would be perpetual.
Much of the levy would go toward funding the Glacier County jail, located in Cut Bank and finished in 2009. The jail, which was “state of the art” when it opened, according to Captain Tom Seifert, can house up to 24 inmates, 20 men and four women.
Voters in 2006 approved a 10-year, $3.4 million mill levy to build and maintain the jail. Seifert explained that the 2006 mill levy does not provide funding for staffing.
According to Seifert, in order to staff the jail 24/7, six detention officers are needed. If there are no detention officers, as it was earlier this year when the county furloughed employees, sheriff’s deputies take turns filling in as detention officers.
“But that’s a real drain on patrol,” Seifert said.
Best practices for detention facilities is “to ensure that there is 24/7 monitoring in any facility,” explained Nanette Gilbertson, executive director of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The MSPOA “is the professional organization for Sheriffs, Deputy Sheriffs, Detention Officers and other sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website.
The MSPOA performs peer reviews of detention facilities by studying the facilities’ procedure and operations and conducting interviews. The goal, Gilbertson said, is to maintain inmate and detention officer safety through the implementation of voluntary standards.
“The adherence to those standards largely depends on funding for the detention facility,” Gilbertson said.
One of the recommendations based on those standards is that detention facilities have in-person monitoring of inmates and physical checks every 30 minutes, she said.
Not all the detention facilities in Montana have 24/7 staffing. Variance in urban versus rural facilities, funding to pay a 24/7 staff, and challenges recruiting staff all contribute to staffing situations, she said. Some counties do not have a detention facility, instead contracting that duty to neighboring counties that do have such facilities.
Round-the-clock, in-person staffing comes down to a desire to keep inmates safe.
Sheriffs and detention officers “take their responsibility for the welfare, care, and safety of inmates really seriously,” Gilbertson stressed.
The Glacier County Sheriff’s Office/Public Safety budget currently is $1.8 million, which is funded by $980,514 in property tax revenues, plus nontax revenues. Some of the remaining budget comes from PILT funds, or payment in lieu of taxes, which is “federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to the existence of nontaxable Federal lands within their boundaries,” according to the United States Department of the Interior’s website.
At a March 8 meeting of the Glacier County Commission, both Sheriff Vernon “Napi” Billedeaux and commission chairman Michael DesRosier noted that using PILT funds is not a permanent fix for the budget shortfall.
During FY 2019-2020, Glacier County is subsidizing the budget by $692,000 using an interfund transfer account from PILT funds.
Without the levy, Seifert says the sheriff’s office will likely need to downsize, even to the point of cutting back the staffed hours at the jail or closing the jail altogether.
However, the jail is not an underutilized facility. Currently, due to concern about the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities, the county is taking only felony and serious misdemeanor inmates. Also due to COVID-19, the Montana Department of Corrections has slowed its intake of inmates sentenced in District Court, which also adds to the jail’s population. When Seifert spoke to the Pioneer Press in mid-September, the jail was about half full, but he said that is a comparatively low population.
“Throughout the last two months, it’s been busting at the seams. I’m talking completely full,” he said.
If the Glacier County jail did close, inmates would be taken to other jails in the state, Seifert explained, even if the only open bed is hundreds of miles away.
The costs associated with transfer, including gas and paying two deputies for their time, and room and board for the inmate would be very high: Seifert estimated a daily cost of $75 per inmate in other jails.
“It’s the county’s responsibility to house the prisoners. Now the county has to farm them out, and you’re looking at 25 inmates a month, on an average population. You have to budget at least that much. That’s an ungodly amount of money,” Seifert said.
People arrested by the City of Cut Bank Police Department would also be affected if the jail’s functionality changes, said police chief Michael Schultz.
“Jails do have limits on maximum prisoners, and when it gets to that point only felony violators or domestic abuse arrestees are accepted at the jail,” Schultz explained in an email. “If operation levels of the jail are reduced, we have seen the maximum prisoner level drop. This does result in officers having to cite and release arrestees more often without having them post bond or visiting with the judge before release.”
Ultimately, Seifert hopes voters will put their concerns about Glacier County’s finances aside when voting and approve a permanent fix to the jail’s operating budget.
“People can blame this person or that person, but at the end of the day, we need to come together as a county and fix the problem,” he said.