It's expensive to run a jail and house inmates. It's also expensive to outsource inmate housing. Jail operations and inmate costs cut into annual budgets and create a burden for some counties, especially when facilities are overcrowded.
That's the reality for McCracken County and its nearby neighbor Lyon County, even if their exact situations and costs are different. McCracken County has a jail that's above capacity, while Lyon County doesn't have one and relies on other Kentucky counties to house its local inmates.
"Just running the jail itself is over $8 million a year," McCracken Judge-Executive Craig Clymer said.
The county is responsible for housing inmates, providing medical care and food until an inmate is convicted -- if they are -- which is when the state takes over, Clymer said. Some of these taxpayer-funded inmates aren't local residents and may originate from other communities or states, but allegedly broke state laws in McCracken County.
Deputy Judge-Executive Steve Doolittle reports McCracken County Jail's total operational cost is $8.3 million and represents about 28 percent of the overall county budget. It recovers fees from the state, different counties and federal government for housing inmates from other jurisdictions. The state provides $31.34 per day for each state inmate.
The jail is responsible for about 63 percent of its costs with the fiscal court picking up the other 37 percent of its $8.3 million budget.
"It would be ideal (if) we could get enough of (state inmates) that would pay for the coverage of the local inmates that we have to accommodate, but the problem is we have a lot of people in jail awaiting disposition of their cases," Doolittle said.
Compensation for keeping state inmates does make up a significant portion of his budget, McCracken County Jailer David Knight said. At the end of last week, Knight said the facility was housing about 600 inmates, 300 of whom are state inmates.
"The money goes back into the budget to fund the jail," Knight said.
He said state compensation brings in between $2 million and $2.5 million per year -- not nearly enough to fully fund the jail but enough to ease some of the county's financial burden.
"If I took those 300 (state inmates) out, the jail would still have to function," Knight said, adding decreasing the population wouldn't make a significant dent in the jail's operational costs, which includes heating and electricity.
The budget, he said "doesn't cut in half just because I got rid of half the population."
Knight doesn't have the luxury of refusing to take an inmate, but said he communicates with other facilities across the state, who can sometimes take state inmates off his hands. Usually it's the state inmates who get shuffled, because Knight would have to pay another facility to take a local inmate who hasn't been convicted of a felony.
In Lyon County, inmates are transported to other locations since there isn't a local jail. The majority of its inmates are sent to Crittenden County with others going to Marshall and Christian counties.
The county had previously sent inmates to Caldwell County, but recently received a letter stating Caldwell couldn't take any more due to overcrowding, said Lyon Judge-Executive Wade White, who has been vocal about the financial burden facing his community.
He said the projected inmate housing cost for Lyon County this year is $500,000, which is a large increase compared to $55,000 in 2013 and $240,000 last year.
It's not a sustainable figure, considering revenue levels and budget cuts already made in response to this rising cost.
"We collect about $780,000 for property taxes and our jail -- just housing -- is eating up $500,000 of that, so you can see how small our budget gets real quick," he said.
White attributed the increase to several reasons, including drug arrests by Kentucky State Police and a backlog of court cases.
There were 85 criminal cases in July 2016 and 175 in April 2019, according to White's figures.
"(State police are) excellent at what they do, pulling these people over on the interstate, but it's people that are not stopping in Lyon County or committing crimes in Lyon County, they're passing through," he noted.
The arrests piled up, prompting White to speak with state police about spreading out. He said the county has been able to drop inmate totals, but it's still concerned they could increase again until "real fixes" are found.
The county also went to Frankfort asking for a family court judge or other help, as White said it currently shares one judge with Caldwell, Livingston and Trigg counties. A December meeting has been planned to discuss the issue.
"Something has to change because I'm going to have to start raising taxes in a dramatic way if we can't get this under control, so that's why I'm getting loud about it, going to Frankfort," White said. "And I feel like we're on the right track to helping us solve this, but we've got a long way to go."
Meanwhile, neighboring Fulton County is not currently experiencing overcrowding in the Fulton County Detention Center. The jail's bed space is 525 beds and it had 521 inmates as of Friday, Fulton County Jailer Steven Williams reported.
Williams describes the facility as "self-sufficient" with a small local inmate population.
"The majority of people at our jail obviously would be state inmates," Fulton Judge-Executive Jim Martin said. "The county inmates, people that are in the court system that are in Fulton County, generally run less than 20 people."
There were 15 county inmates as of Friday and the rest are state inmates, for which the county will receive compensation. The detention center budget is more than $8.3 million.
Martin said the facility creates revenue, which is used for operations, making double payments in debt service obligations for past jail construction projects and other public services. Paying off debt is a top priority for Martin, who wants the county to be prepared if state inmate levels decrease in the future, meaning less compensation.
"Some of the other counties are having to put money into the jail out of the general fund," he said. "Fulton County has not put money into the jail out of the general fund since 1992 and this is a great, shining victory for Fulton County. When other counties are having to subsidize its jail operation, we are not."