A decrease in staff and inmates at the Detention Center has prompted Steele County to consolidate its operations at the facility.

The county currently has seven corrections officer positions and one supervisory position vacant at the Detention Center, a pile up of vacancies caused by the county’s hiring freeze during the pandemic, and county officials say the change to operations is an attempt to relieve the stress and workload on the remaining staff as the county starts the process to fill the positions.

The county has closed off one area of the Detention Center and is currently using the two remaining areas to house inmates with fewer staff, according to County Administrator Scott Golberg.

Steele County is proactively adjusting its operations to accommodate for the staff shortage, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesman Aaron Swanum. The county is still within the state’s jail staffing requirements and hasn’t formally requested or received a variance to operate outside of those requirements, he said.

The DOC approved Steele County’s temporary combination of two units into one at the Detention Center, according to Steele County Jail Administrator Anthony Buttera. The change moved the minimum-status inmates into a section of the Detention Center that is used to house a higher classification of inmates. The county created procedures that will ensure the two classifications of inmates will be physically separated and access to common areas of the housing until will be split evenly between the two groups, according to Buttera.

“There is no concern for the safety of either the Detention Center staff or the detainees,” Buttera said. “We worked on the current plan for nearly a month prior to implementation in order to make sure that any changes were implemented with safety being top priority. All inmates are classified and housed according to DOC requirements, which greatly limits the risk for staff and detainees.”

The goal is to have enough staff hired by the end of summer to resume normal operations at the Detention Center, according to Buttera.

The change comes after the county exhausted all other options for addressing the staff shortage and will save the county 24 hours of overtime per day at the Detention Center, according to an informational memo to the Steele County Board.

The number of inmates began declining before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has exacerbated the decline, Golberg said.

Payroll is down due to the open positions, but revenue at the Detention Center is also down because fewer inmates means less per diem revenue coming into the county, Golberg said.

On top of that, the county’s discussions about the overabundance of space at the Detention Center, and possible changes to address that, in the last year has “created anxiety at the Detention Center among the staff,” he said. As a result, some of the staff has left for other jobs.

County Human Resources Director Julie Johnson said some staff also left due to fatigue during the pandemic because it was taxing on the staff to work in a communal living situation during the pandemic.

As the job vacancies increased, that put more work on the remaining staff who was then forced to work overtime to cover the vacancies. It created a situation where staff who normally have to work nights, weekends and holidays were having their free time filled with working overtime. That has also caused some staff to leave, Johnson said. She noted that some also left for personal reasons.

It’s a difficult job and the county appreciates the work the Detention Center staff has been doing, she said.

Golberg said they’re trying to reduce the stress on the employees and make it more manageable to get through the staff shortage.

The county had a hiring freeze due to the uncertainty about the county’s finances last year, but the county began advertising to fill three of the Detention Center positions recently. The county started to receive applications, but how many will come in will depend on the job market and timing, Johnson said. She said they can usually fill these positions easily, but the new hires need to go through 12 weeks of field training and can’t fully do the job until that’s completed. The county is looking to fill several vacant positions at a time rather than all eight positions at once because its draining on the staff who have to conduct the training, Johnson said.

Filling the eight positions also depends on the county’s circumstances as it comes out of the pandemic and the financial situation begins to settle down, Golberg said.

Detention Center partner search

Steele County commissioners met with commissioners from Dodge and Waseca counties a couple weeks ago to discuss the potential for a partnership at the Detention Center, but no further moves have been made.

Steele commissioners wanted to convey its situation at the Detention Center to the neighboring counties in the meeting. Waseca County rarely uses the Detention Center to house its inmates, but Dodge County has a contract to use the Detention Center with a lower per diem rate than other counties. Golberg noted that the per diem rate the county receives is “way below” Steele County’s true cost of housing the inmates.

Waseca County is working on improvements to its own jail and hasn’t shown an interest in changing its plan, Golberg said. Dodge County isn’t looking to change its jail use, but Steele could consider trying to renegotiate Dodge’s per diem rate, he said.

Steele County is trying to look at every option for reducing its expenses, he said. Jails are a “tough service” for counties and the cost associated with jails are “a major budget stressor” for counties, Golberg said.

Detention Center maintenance

The Steele County Board awarded a contract Tuesday to Rochon Corporation in Osseo, Minnesota, for upgrading the Detention Center’s security system. The current security system is 17 years old and is difficult to maintain because parts and service are hard to find, Golberg said.

Rochon was the lowest bidder at $1.6 million and Golberg said there’ll need to be some change orders to bring the project under the county’s budget of $1.4 million.

Reach Associate Editor Lisa Kaczke at 507-444-2371. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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