San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

November 19th, 2009
County to challenge state action

Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (left) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (center) discuss the county jail situation with Margot Fraser of MGT (right). Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Receiving the inspection results they hoped for, Hays County Commissioners are about to challenge the state’s order that they shut down the kitchen in the Hays County Jail.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday morning to request a review hearing from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), which recently ordered the county to close its jail kitchen by Nov. 20. TCJS inspectors in September and April reported health and safety perils in the jail’s kitchen involving mold and structural problems with floors that make them likely to cause slipping.

The court based its request for a review hearing on the outcomes of two health inspections in the jail last week– one by City of San Marcos health inspectors and the other by county inspectors. Both inspections gave the kitchen a passing grade.

The court also based its request for a hearing on District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy’s determination that TCJS’ order runs contrary to state law.

Along with a decision to appeal, the commissioners also agreed to add $75,450 to what it will pay for roof repairs. The additional money will cover an upgrade of insulation for the roof.  Earlier this month, commissioners awarded Austin-based Texas Fifth Wall Roofing a $424,000 contract for repairs to the jail’s damaged roof.

TCJS found the roof to be in noncompliance with state law in April, and again in September. An analysis conducted at the behest of Texas Fifth Wall Roofing indicates the county could recoup the cost of the insulation upgrade through energy savings in the jail during the next ten years.

The county is attempting to find grants that could be used to fund at least some of the roof repairs.

After a hearing in Austin on Nov. 5, when  TCJS staff exhibited what they said were photographs of mold and deep standing water from a TCJS inspection of the kitchen days earlier, TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz advised his commission members to close the jail kitchen immediately because the county had failed to initiate appropriate corrective measures. The commission granted an extension until Nov. 20 after input from Hays County Sheriff Tommy Ratliff.

Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) said he witnessed the recent city inspection of the jail kitchen, and said he believes there was no actual mold in the TCJS photos and that the standing water was of no greater extent than what could have been caused by a “large glass” of spilled water.

“This makes, I believe, the fifth (city or county) inspection we have passed,” Conley said. “I think that’s a combination of county and city … health inspectors within a 12-month period of time. According to the city inspectors, a restaurant in San Marcos on average is inspected once a year. Twice a year is quite a bit. And we have passed every single one — five of those inspections. Yet, it has been ordered temporarily closed down by the state commission. The facility looked good.”

The county’s consultant firm Broaddus and Associates (B&A) is overseeing an environmental study of the jail kitchen to determine whether the substance captured by TCJS cameras is mold, and to ascertain whether there are airborne contaminants present such as mold spores and asbestos. Results of that study, expected to be released late this week, will be included in the information the county sends TCJS as part of review hearing request.

The county’s submission of the request for review and hearing effectively buys time until the next TCJS meeting scheduled in February. If the kitchen shut-down were enforced on Nov. 20, the county would have to rent mobile kitchen until the anticipated repair completion time of mid-March.

The lowest mobile kitchen provider bid solicited by the county came in last week at $11,200 per month, plus a $3,500 setup charge. In the event the environmental study reveals evidence of an imminent threat to the health and safety of jail inmates and staff, court members said the kitchen would be closed immediately.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Conley urged people to bring the discussion about the jail’s kitchen “down to earth,” and refrain from overreacting to results of environmental surveys. Conley said that if many homes, county offices and state jails were targeted with environmental surveys and structural-safety assessments, all or most would likely be out of compliance with some code.

Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) criticized Ratliff’s decision to invite a TCJS inspection in April, which the county failed.

“Once we come under scrutiny, I recognize that state officials and inspectors have their own duty that they follow through on, and once it becomes an issue of heightened awareness, it’s just human nature,” Barton said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We all want to be good at our jobs and justify our own jobs, and try and protect things. I think (state officials) are well-intentioned. I suspect that we opened the door to scrutiny, and I think I would have taken a different approach. I’m not sure it has turned out to be the wisest approach for us. But once that door is opened, we’ve got to be able to take the heat in the kitchen, I guess. But I think we’re addressing those issues that need to be addressed. We were addressing them, in fact, before the state came in the spring. We’ve tried to expedite as issues have been raised and brought to our attention. We’re following through. It’s an old building and it needs work, and we’re in the process of doing that work and deciding whether we can use this building in the long-term.”

TCJS Inspector Fredrick St. Amant gave the jail a passing grade in September 2008. TCJS Inspector Jackie Semmler, during her April 2009 inspection of the jail, found at least seven areas of noncompliance with state law, some of which, she said, posed health, safety and security concerns for inmates, staff and the public. A major noncompliance issue involved the jail’s deteriorating roof, which the county had not fixed by the time TCJS conducted its regular annual inspection — albeit a surprise inspection — near the end of September.

Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said in September that the roof had not been fixed because there was “a lot of assessment that needed to be done on the structural portion of the building to make sure that whatever we put out there would address the situation.”

Instances of noncompliance St. Amant specified in his September report included mold and mildew on walls of walk-in coolers and freezers, deterioration of cooler walls from rust, kitchen floors prone to cause slipping, lack of washable surfaces in the kitchen caused by cracked ceilings and missing and damaged kitchen floor tiles, rusted food passes in the holding and detox area, rusted walls, partitions, showers and vents, holes and cracks in the indoor recreation area’s walls, and roof damage causing leaking that he said might result in further “deterioration” of the facility.

Kennedy advised commissioners Tuesday  that TCJS’ order that the jail kitchen be closed by Nov. 20 is not a valid remedial order because the county was not actually in violation of Rule §297.6 of the Texas Administrative Code (TAC). Rule §297.6 of TAC requires the county to “initiate appropriate corrective measures” within a time period specified by TCJS, but not to exceed 30 days. The rule requires the county to come into full compliance within a time frame set by TCJS, but not to exceed 12 months.

In October, commissioners voted to spend $1,455,388 in short-term repairs to the jail, some of which are being overseen by B&A. The county was required to send a response letter detailing what corrective measures it was taking within 30 days of its receipt of TCJS’ letter of noncompliance resulting from the surprise inspection in late September. The county received the noncompliance letter on Oct. 1, and Sumter emailed a response letter on Oct. 30.

Sumter’s letter said the county had repaired doors and cells in the jail, removed the rust from food passes, cleaned away the mold in the kitchen and fixed the two-way communications system in the Hays County Justice Center. Sumter’s letter added that the county was receiving bids for the replacement of the infirmary’s shower and new valves to improve water flow in sinks and showers. The response letter also said the county would repair indoor recreation areas within the first half of November, and had moved inmates living in flooded areas elsewhere in the jail.

The letter also informed TCJS that the county would let out the bid for replacement of the jail’s roof on Nov. 3. The letter said that the county was soliciting bids for repairs to the “violent cell,” which TCJS ordered close after a surprise inspection on Oct. 14.

Sumter’s response letter also reported the county was assessing how to permanently fix the jail’s kitchen and cooler. B&A said it could have the kitchen and cooler fixed by mid-March. Other pending jail repairs include the replacement of the infirmary’s shower, new valves to improve water flow in sinks and showers, elimination of holes and cracks in the indoor recreation area’s walls and installation of a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The letter also informed TCJS of B&A’s ongoing physical assessment of the jail.

The results of B&A’s assessment, along with input from an ongoing study of the county’s justice system by subcontractor MGT will indicate whether the jail can be expanded or replaced. MGT’s study, expected to be complete by the end of December, also will suggest ways for county officials to streamline the justice system to avoid the expense of incarcerating people longer than necessary.

B&A’s assessment is expected to be completed sometime in January at an estimated cost of $246,400. B&A is also the project manager for the government center project, the cost of which is estimated will be between $72 million and $74 million. The cost may be lower, as the county has yet to negotiated a guaranteed maximum price with the design build firm, Balfour Beatty.

Kennedy also advised court members on Tuesday that the letter TCJS sent to the county just after the first inspection in April did not meet the Texas Administrative Code’s (TAC) definition of a notice of noncompliance. If the letter is in fact only an inspection report, as Kennedy said it is, the county has more time to bring the jail into compliance with state law.

The current size of the jail is insufficient to house the number of people imprisoned by the county. The county spent $264,900 during the FY 2009 budget to house 25 inmates in Guadalupe County. Ratliff said in early November that the county was then housing 56 prisoners out-of-county, more than usual due to ongoing repairs.

Sumter said earlier this month that the county was scouting for architects for a new jail just before Sheriff Allen Bridges’ death in December. Sumter and Ratliff have voiced support for building a new jail rather than expanding the current facility.

Ratliff said earlier this month that a new jail may cost the county “close to $50-or-$60 million, probably.” County Auditor Bill Herzog said on Nov. 5 that the county has not yet conducted a cost estimate for an expansion of the jail or the construction of a new facility.

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