Chatham Co. Detention Center costs could bring tax hike - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Chatham County jail costs could bring tax hike

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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) -

In Chatham County, the cost of keeping someone behind bars is rising.

At the Chatham County Commission budget retreat Tuesday, commissioners raised questions about those costs. The County Sheriff's office presented its budget proposal; $52.8 million to run the expanded Chatham County Detention Center in Fiscal Year 2013, which starts in July.

The jail renovation -- which was initially expected to cost $109 million -- is coming in under budget. But the cost of operating it is taking some by surprise and could mean a bigger chunk out of taxpayers' wallets.

"With all the submitted requests and all, if every one were to go through as requested, there'd definitely have to be a tax increase," County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter said.

Sluggish tax collections aren't helping

"The revenues are looking more favorable than they were last year, but we will have to address this jail expansion," said Commissioner Helen Stone.

Under the county's current proposal, it would cost $68.88 per day to house an inmate. But that's an estimate, and that's calculated at 2,100 hundred prisoners. Right now, the jail only has about 1,550.

Compare that to Cobb County, which finished its jail expansion in 2010. It costs $56.81 per day to keep someone locked up in Cobb County. That's not much more than the far-smaller jail in Brantley County, where $45 a day is spent to house an inmate.

Across Georgia, per-day jail costs range from $25 to $72, according to Bill Hallsworth, Jail and Court Services Coordinator for the Georgia Sheriff's Association.

Sheriff Al St Lawrence says the Chatham County Detention Center expansion is absolutely necessary. It only took a couple years for the current jail -- finished in the early 90's --  to reach capacity.

"In a one-man cell, we'll put two inmates," said Lt. Col. Thomas Gilberg of the Chatham County Sheriff's office. "In a two-man cell, we'll put three inmates. We'll put a stack bunk in there."

But St Lawrence says overcrowding can have legal consequences.

"It could mean me winding up in federal court having to defend myself."

The new jail is designed to house 2,630 inmates -- about the population of Bloomingdale.

"We're building for the future," St Lawrence said.

But can Chatham County taxpayers really afford to spend nearly $70 a day to keep a person in jail?

"We're going to have to take a good look and fund the essentials to keep people in jail," Kicklighter said. "But probably some of the nicer things that we've been able to pay for and support, we'll have to cut."

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