SALT LAKE CITY — After about 14 years, Salt Lake County's partially mothballed Oxbow Jail may fully open next July — that is, if the County Council likes Mayor Ben McAdams' proposed budget.
McAdams on Tuesday presented to the council his $1.3 billion budget, within it outlining a plan to open 368 jail beds at Oxbow in summer 2018 using county and state funds already budgeted for contracting with surrounding counties to expand jail capacity.
That way, the county can avoid raising taxes — for now.
McAdams' budget proposal doesn't include a tax increase, even though former Sheriff Jim Winder said last year there was "no question" a tax increase was needed to help make ends meet at the jail.
"A tax increase is the last place we look," McAdams said, noting that his team instead found ways to streamline the budget. The proposal, he said, reduces total department requests by $24.2 million.
This year, the already overcrowded county jail began struggling even more under pressures from more than 1,700 arrests in Operation Rio Grande, the multi-agency effort to root out lawlessness in Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood.
Oxbow's opening would cost $7.4 million next year, and about $9 million per year after that to maintain and staff, according to county officials.
McAdams said he would ask the state Legislature to discontinue contracts for about 300 beds with jails in Davis, Tooele and Weber counties and instead put that $2.8 million in state funds toward reopening Oxbow, along with $2.8 million in county money already budgeted for the jail. The county would pick up the remaining cost, the mayor said.
"It's just much more sustainable and efficient for us to operate all that within Salt Lake County," McAdams said, noting that the county would no longer need to transport inmates in and out of the county through jail contracting.
But what happens when the state funding runs out? McAdams said he expects the state would provide short-term assistance, and after the jail opens, the county would have to find a way to "absorb" its $9 million in annual costs.
If the state contracting money is instead used for Oxbow, that means Oxbow would only expand the county's jail capacity by about 68 beds because the 300 contracted beds would phase out. But McAdams said the county also would fund treatment and other programs to help divert the drug addicted from jail.
"We have to have a place to take dangerous people off our streets and protect public safety. That is a critical part of our criminal justice system," he said. "But if incarceration is the only tool in our tool belt, we cannot afford that. We cannot build and sustain enough jail beds if incarceration is our only tool."
McAdams said the county will use this year's $1.9 million grant from the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative to clear existing drug court waiting lists. Also, the county's two Pay for Success programs — for which it raised $11.6 million in private grants and loans — have nearly completed their first year and should be fully operational and serving more than 500 people next year.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said using the jail contracting funds "is the only alternative we have right now to ensure we have the funds to open Oxbow."
"Contracting out is costly to us, and it uses a lot of our resources," Rivera said, "so that was the only alternative we had."
While opening Oxbow is one of McAdams' biggest asks, he also called for a 2.5 percent pay increase for all county employees — costing about $2.6 million. His budget proposal also includes $2.1 million for the November 2018 election and $1.4 million for Operation Rio Grande-related costs.
Rivera said transporting inmates to contracted jail cells have put a strain on her already overworked staff, causing near-daily jail lockdowns at the Adult Detention Center because those transports require at least two staffers, leaving other areas of the jail understaffed.
"Our resources are so limited right now," she said, "but we're hoping with the opening of Oxbow we can improve our services and have enough jail beds."
Rivera noted, however, that opening Oxbow won't solve the jail capacity issues in the growing county.
"It won't be (enough) for the future, and we know that," she said.
Rivera plans to propose the opening of two more pods at the current jail, as well as the construction of a new community correction center to expand even more, she said.
But all that will cost tens of millions of dollars, Rivera said. Until then, the jail needs a short-term solution.1 comment on this story
"Right now, Oxbow is the only temporary fix we have," she said.
County Council Chairman Steve DeBry said he's glad to see no tax increases proposed in McAdams' budget and that public safety is a top priority.
"We need to open up Oxbow Jail in 2018. That's huge. We need those beds," DeBry said. "It's correct we can't incarcerate our way out of this problem, but with the critical needs that come with our population, we need to lock up the people that need to be locked up and also provide the treatment for (those who are) addicted."