Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder believes mental health services for county jail inmates can be provided more inexpensively by an in-house staff than by employees of a private contractor.
He convinced the County Council to go along with him on the revised approach to treatment. But council members harbored enough reservations about taking on more county staff to the detriment of the private sector that they asked the sheriff for annual updates on the impact of the change.
"As part of the budget process every year," said Republican Councilman Michael Jensen, "we need legislative intent to make sure we are getting the bang for the buck we want. If not, maybe we go out and look at the private sector to see what they can do."
Mental health services at the jail have been supplied by MHM Services, Inc., a Virginia-based company with operations in 11 states.
Winder said he had no complaints with MHM's services, except the contract sometimes prevented the jail from readily getting extra mental health personnel when there were spikes in inmate need for services. He also figured going in-house will save Salt Lake County $130,000 compared to extending MHM's contract, which expires at the end of March.
MHM officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The sheriff's office plans to hire 18 people five jail nurses, eight mental-health professionals, three case managers, a program manager and a clerk. Winder said efforts were being made to hire many of the MHM staff members currently working at the jail.
He said the county will continue to contract for physician and psychiatric care. Requests for bids for those positions will go out soon.
"We need to make sure we're making the right decision, but I'm confident the sheriff thought this through," said Democratic Councilman Randy Horiuchi.
Council Chairman Steve DeBry, a Republican and a Unified Police Department officer, said he generally supported privatization of services. But he backed Winder's proposal, which passed 7-2, stating "there are some things government does better than the private sector jails, prison, police and fire."
Republican Councilmen Richard Snelgrove and David Wilde voted against the change, contending private companies should provide the services, not government.