By Mark Waite
County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen wants to find other uses for the Tonopah jail, after the board Tuesday voted 4-1 to designate the new $17 million Pahrump jail the official Nye County Jail.
The Tonopah and Beatty jails will now be branch jails. That doesn’t mean they will be closed but county commissioners now have that authority to do so.
Commissioner Lorinda Wichman, the sole representative from northern Nye County, voted against Schinhofen’s motion to designate Pahrump the county jail. He also wants to have a workshop to study using the Tonopah facility for juveniles and housing Esmeralda County prisoners, where the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue over conditions in the Goldfield jail.
There was also talk about instituting a half-cent sales tax for sheriff’s and fire personnel that was barely passed by Nye County voters in 2006 and was passed by the Nevada Legislature but was voted down by a 3-2 vote of the county commission in December 2007.
“It made sense to me that we would name this jail in Pahrump as the county jail, being the most populous, having the most room available and then see what we can do with the jail up in Tonopah,” Schinhofen said.
Commissioners were trying to find a solution to funding problems that continue to plague the sheriff’s office.
County Manager Pam Webster said she was asked to put a discussion about the Nye County Jail on the agenda, she said there were concerns over the number of Pahrump prisoners still being housed in Tonopah.
Assistant Sheriff Rick Marshall said 17 Pahrump inmates were housed in Tonopah who are long term, with court dates six months away, to reduce the inmate-to-staff ratio in Pahrump. Before the new 224-bed jail was constructed, Pahrump prisoners with five days or more before a court appearance were routinely transported to Tonopah.
The population of the Tonopah jail is 35 inmates at present; they are supervised by 12 employees, Marshall said. The Pahrump jail has 17 employees supervising 105 to 120 inmates.
Sheriff Tony DeMeo said there are different classifications for inmates. Similar defendants in a case have to be separated, he said. In other cases an inmate who was victimized by someone on the outside has to be kept separate.
“Does that mean the Tonopah jail is going to close? No, because there are times we have to segregate inmates,” DeMeo said.
Wichman said it doesn’t make a difference to her what county commissioners name a building
“We have maintained two services because of the vast differences, the 240 miles between my house and this building,” Wichman said.
Her exchange with the sheriff got a little testy. She told DeMeo “the problem is the budget. You’re projected to be over 8 percent this year. There’s questions how you manage your staff and your resources between Pahrump and Tonopah and whether or not that can be trimmed and if you can open yourself up to some suggestions on how to change some of those things and get yourself under control in the budget for the first time in many years.”
“By changing the name and having this threat or rumor or whatever out there about the county commissioners closing a jail in Tonopah is not going to solve what the problem is. The issue is trying to get these under control.”
DeMeo said the sheriff’s department has to have someone supervising prisoners in the jails, they can’t stop taking calls for service or stop arresting people for crimes. He recalled taking office in 2003 when county commissioners decided to close the Amargosa Valley sheriff’s substation.
DeMeo boasted the crime rate in 2011 was the lowest in years because of programs that were put in place, despite the reduction in staff.
District Attorney Brian Kunzi said with the size of Nye County it can’t operate with one jail.
“However, it is incumbent upon all of us to find a solution because today we still have the same problems prior to the old jail from the standpoint of transporting prisoners from Tonopah to court in Pahrump. That’s frustrating to the courts, it’s frustrating to us and it’s a waste of resources,” Kunzi said.
The bulk of the work is still done in Pahrump, he said, noting he has one prosecutor in Tonopah who does half the work of a Pahrump prosecutor.
“Let’s figure out how to get the Pahrump inmates housed in Pahrump and have the Tonopah inmates in Tonopah so the county courts can operate more efficiently,” Kunzi said.
Marshall said, “if you have 10 inmates in Tonopah or 50 inmates in Tonopah you still need 24-hour coverage.”
The sheriff said he’d heard rumors about plans to close the Tonopah jail. While there wasn’t talk about closing it Tuesday, Schinhofen came close.
“It’s not really cost effective for us to be running that the way it is. It just seems to me we’d be better off having prisoners down here, having employees down here and figuring out what we could do to still use that facility. I’m not talking about abandoning that facility at all,” he said. “You can’t close the county jail, you can close satellite jails.”
DeMeo reminded commissioners about the state approving the half-cent sales tax increase. It would have raised $2.6 million a year.
Former county commissioners Peter Liakopolous, Joni Eastley and Roberta “Midge” Carver voted against it.