El Paso County officials are concerned that a new law will up the head count at the already overcrowded county jail, making it more expensive for the Sheriff's Office to run.
That measure, House Bill 1263, reclassified a series of drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, lightening potential sentences for offenders. As a result, many of those convicted of the charges will serve time in county jails instead of state prisons, County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf told Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday.
“We’re looking at about a $600,000 a year impact. That number can vary quite a lot depending ultimately on how the legislation is implemented," VanderWerf said.
That law is one of several new measures that the county commissioners called "unfunded mandates" from the state during an hourlong meeting with Polis in Colorado Springs.
Altogether, the new policies could strain the county's annual budget of roughly $375 million — and the state appears to be offering little financial support, VanderWerf told the governor.
"A $500,000 unfunded mandate in the county here is highly magnified. We get a half-dozen of those, and we have some real impacts," he said.
Polis, whose office requested the meeting, invited county officials to provide his administration with recommendations that can reduce the burden on local governments and "free up" resources when future policies are in the works.
"We would love to, in the future, replace unfunded mandates with funded nonmandates, where you can do it if you want. We empower you to do it. We support you doing it," he told commissioners.
While the county offered some criticisms, the tone remained polite, despite the stark ideological differences between the uniformly conservative commission and the Democratic governor.
Another law, House Bill 1278, is anticipated to cost the county clerk and recorder about $300,000 to $400,000, VanderWerf said. County officials initially estimated that the measure — which expands requirements for voting hours, polling centers and ballot drop-off boxes during election seasons — would cost the county more than $1.5 million in 2020. That estimate has gone down, though, he said.
Lawmakers who proposed the drug charge reclassification law, which Polis signed in May, have said it aims to reduce the inmate count at state prisons and prevent people from ending up behind bars solely because they suffer from drug addiction.
“It’s time to take away this whole notion that we have to incarcerate to provide treatment,” sponsoring state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, told The Denver Post last spring.
Many of the law's provisions don't take effect until March 2020.
The changes are expected to increase the jail's population by 40 to 50 inmates a day, Sheriff Bill Elder told the county commissioners during a June tour of the facility.
In 2018, the average cost to house an inmate at a Colorado jail for one day was about $100, according to a fiscal note from the General Assembly's Legislative Council Staff.
As of Friday, the El Paso County jail's population was about 1,530 inmates; however, that number has at times soared above 1,600. The facility is considered at capacity at about 1,700.
Elder has said the jail will need more space if the inmate count continues to rise at the current pace.
Constructing a new tower with nearly 900 beds would cost about $100 million, he has said.