CROWN POINT | If budget-busting were a crime, the Lake County Jail would be a prime suspect.
County officials gathered last week and some even toured the 1,040-bed lockup as a preliminary to setting their 2013 spending goals and confronting the escalating jail costs that threaten to drive county government into millions of dollars in deficit spending.
"There is going to be a shortfall, and the biggest part of it is going to be in the sheriff's budget," Councilman Rick Niemeyer, R-Crown Point, said.
Dante Rondelli, the council's fiscal adviser, said this year's budget already is $5 million in the red because of anemic property tax collections. Federal demands for more jail spending, including the hiring of 18 more corrections officers, threaten to add another $6 million in cost for which the county has no money.
U.S. Department of Justice officials cited the jail in 2009 for deficient mental health and medical care programs and sanitary conditions. County officials were compelled to sign an agreement to improve inmate conditions or face a complete federal takeover.
The Lake County Council appropriated $4 million this year for ramped-up medical and mental health services over and above the $12.6 million in routine jail costs.
Earlier this month, the three-member Board of Commissioners awarded Larson-Danielson of Gary $3.2 million for jail renovations to house acute mentally ill inmates, provide wheelchair access in some medical areas, create more space and privacy for inmate health screenings, and buy and install additional video cameras and fire-resistant mattresses.
Rondelli said the county has paid this by drawing down its savings account the last two years. "That's over," Rondelli said. "We've run through the reserves. They have to find permanent revenue sources."
Rondelli said borrowing or a creating new tax are options council members must explore, although neither he nor they want that.
Councilman Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said the county may have to sell some assets too, but he is depending on Sheriff John Buncich, to find more than $1 million in savings in his combined police and jail budget. He said all criminal justice departments in county government will be expected to contribute savings, too.
Niemeyer said, "I'm not leaning toward any kind of income tax or any other taxes. I'm at the point of how much further can we go, considering what we have spent over there in the last two years. There comes a point when you just can't do anymore. We don't have the revenue to do it."
Kenneth A. Ray, a consultant coordinating jail compliance for Buncich, said, "I feel sorry for the county council because DOJ are like Vulcans; they don't bluff. They do not back down. DOJ's position is the county is going to have to come up with it or they will go to court and force the county to do it."
Ray said the millions the county already has spent has produced dramatic improvements, reducing its noncompliance to a fraction of the 99 areas of concern that include medical, mental health, suicide prevention, sanitation and inmate safety.
He said Correctional Health Indiana, a medical provider created by a local physician associated with the sheriff, took over medical services in the lockup in January and has met or exceeded physician, nursing and clinical support staffing levels required by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ray denied allegations by an anonymous source familiar with the jail who claimed the jail is understaffed although the county is paying Correctional Health Indiana its full share of a $3.4 million annual contract.
"I have tracked this as a condition of their contract monitoring and as DOJ coordinator since they assumed the work (January 2012)," Ray said. "I examine their invoices each month for staffing compliance and track actual hours of work by care category, as I do with mental health. As we say in Kentucky, CHI left the gate at a dead run and hasn't let up yet."
Natalie Selph, a Lake County jail inmate, also wrote The Times this week to complain about mold in the food, mold in the cell block's cleaning closet, nonfunctioning air conditioning and dust in the air vents.
"We have told the correctional officers numerous amounts of time, but they still haven't done anything about it. We have pregnant women in here and they are getting sick," she stated in her letter.
The Lake County Board of Commissioners voted last week to borrow $7.2 million to settle a 2008 class action suit to satisfy claims by former inmates their health was compromised by dangerous, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions under the administration of former Sheriff Roy Dominguez.