Missoula County will file a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Corrections this week claiming it has breached its contract by not covering the full cost of housing state inmates at the local detention center.
Anna Conley, the senior civil deputy attorney with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, said the county informed the Montana Department of Administration in December that it had a claim against the Department of Corrections for amounts owed to the local detention center.
Under state law, the county had to give the Department of Administration four months notice before moving forward. Those four months expire next week.
“We have not received any request to mediate or further try to resolve this without litigation by the state,” Conley said on Thursday. “We plan to go ahead and file this complaint on April 20. It’s basically a breach of contract complaint.”
The county’s complaint also includes an unjust enrichment claim against the Department of Corrections, along with breach of good faith and fair dealing.
Missoula County believes the state owes it several million dollars for the cost of housing state inmates. The damages being sought include costs incurred through Thursday, April 9, and another figure based on the future estimated costs of care.
“We have most certainly incurred a cost of $2.25 million as of today,” Conley said. “That number is likely quite a bit higher – a couple million dollars higher.”
The state has long relied on Missoula County to house state inmates at the local detention center. But the state only pays the county $69 a day in per diem for each inmate and the Legislature has balked at increasing that amount.
The county said Thursday that the actual cost of housing a state inmate at the local detention center is closer to $122 a day. Over the past few years, commissioners have said local taxpayers are left to make up the $53 difference per inmate per day when it should be paid the state.
“(The true cost) is a long ways from $69,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.
Under Montana law, Conley said, a party can file a complaint and not pursue it for three years. Given the current pandemic, she said the county will file its complaint against the state this month but not pursue it until summer – after the pandemic fades.
The county will file its complaint in Helena District Court.
“Sounds reasonable to me,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.