Selling the Oxbow Jail might not be a bad idea, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said on Thursday.
The state is negotiating a deal with the county to buy the 560-bed facility in South Salt Lake. An appraisal is in the works on the selling price, House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy said.
Winder, who said he has been misquoted in the past as being against the deal, said what sold him is the fact the state is promising to pull all state inmates from the county's overcrowded adult detention center if the county agrees to sell.
That would free up 350 beds at the county's adult detention center.
"This might be a good deal for all involved," Winder said.
Even Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is supporting the deal, saying, "it fits in with the corrections department's goals, especially housing probationers."
"We need the capacity, and it's already been paid for by the taxpayer," Huntsman said.
Although Winder supports the jail sale, he still has reservations.
His chief concern is that the County Council would end up immediately closing those beds to save money. He should have cause for concern: The council has a history of shutting down beds, only to open them when the jail reaches crisis stage.
"It makes no sense," Winder said. "If the public sees the county has sold an asset and at the same time is holding jail beds, I don't see that the public would be happy about that."
Winder said he wants an assurance that the council won't immediately cut off funding for those 350 beds. If they do, the county jail system will have a net loss of 910 beds.
Salt Lake County Councilman Randy Horiuchi said, "That's not a decision that is close to being made yet."
The council is "all over the board," on what to do with the beds, Horiuchi said.
It all comes down to money, Councilman Michael Jensen said. The county will likely lose $2.5 million a year if the state inmates are pulled from the jail, but then again, the county ends up subsidizing state inmates by about $4 million a year, Salt Lake County Chief Deputy Sheriff Rollin Cook said.
"If we're still ahead dollars at the end of the day, then it would be a lot easier to open all the beds," Jensen said.
For years the county has been grappling with overcrowding issues at the adult detention center. But building more beds is expensive $50 million for a new pod.
Just two months ago, Winder failed to convince county leaders to open up the facility. Then the County Council refused to cough up $610,000 to get Oxbow ready to open up once again.
Curtis said he first came up with the idea of buying the jail last fall when Winder was trying to convince the County Council to open up Oxbow once again.
"As I read that, it struck me as somewhat ironic that we were up here looking for $77 million to build space to hold prisoners, and then just down the street you have 560 beds that are sitting vacant," Curtis said.
The state is considering adding more space at the Central Utah Correction Facility in Gunnison. Last week the Capital Facilities and Government Operations Subcommittee prioritized a $54.5 million to build one new pod at the facility. The Department of Corrections wanted two pods.
Unlike past years when the state tried to buy Oxbow, Curtis is offering a fair-market value, several county sources with intimate knowledge of the deal said.
However, the state will try to negotiate the appraisal price down, since it will cost $6 million to upgrade Oxbow to a medium-security facility, Curtis said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said the idea was "intriguing," especially since the sale could ease overcrowding problems."I want to see the numbers on paper and see whether it is a financial benefit for the citizens of Salt Lake County," Corroon said.