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

June 7th, 2010
Hays County Jail back in compliance with state

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Hays County Sheriff Tommy Ratliff told Hays County Commissioners last week that maintenance problems with the Hays County Jail remain an ongoing concern. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Seven months after a state agency ordered Hays County to shut down the kitchen in the county jail for non-compliance with state standards, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) gave the facility a passing grade last Friday. But Hays County Sheriff Tommy Ratliff said maintenance problems still abound.

“There’s days when we have four or five air conditioners go out in one day,” Ratliff said. “And it’s just because they’re all old. And so that’s probably, right now, one of the biggest problems we have. A persistent, ongoing problem is the air conditioners. In a jail that’s 20-something years old, especially this one, we have continuous problems all the time. This is not just something that because it’s so old it can just be fixed. It’s just going to be ongoing problems from now on with different things.”

TCJS inspected the jail multiple times in 2009, finding noncompliance with state law in several areas. TCJS ordered the Hays County jail’s kitchen closed in early November 2009, but commissioners were able to stall the closure until early February by requesting a re-hearing with the state agency, thereby saving tens of thousands of dollars in mobile kitchen rental fees.

The county received notification from TCJS last Friday that the sanctions against the county jail were being lifted because the county achieved compliance with state regulations. County officials said they expect to receive the official written report from TCJS within a few days.

Ratliff appeared before the Hays County Commissioners Court last week and spoke of recurrent problems associated with the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and corroded water pipes.

“We’re having leaks all the time, continuously, throughout the jail facility, and we’re working on them all the time, every day, all day long,” Ratliff told commissioners. “In certain places, they’re starting to leak and corrode.”

The remaining noncompliance issues as far as the state is concerned — the leaking roof, the faulty plumbing system, and the moldy, structurally-unsound kitchen — have been fixed. More prisoners displaced during repairs have been brought back from the Guadalupe County Jail, as reflected by the decreased costs of contract detention services from March ($31,450) to April ($14,400). Hays County regularly sends prisoners to be housed in Guadalupe County due to insufficient space in the jail.

County officials have ball-parked the cost of a new jail at $50-60 million. Ratliff declined to offer his opinion as to whether the county jail needs a new HVAC system.

“(Commissioners) know what the issues are, and we’ve given them that information,” Ratliff said. “They have to be the ones to make that decision, not me. I don’t make that decision. We just tell them what the issues are and what’s going on, and they make those decisions.”

Commissioner saved about $450,000 by not opting to replace the jail’s HVAC system. At a meeting in April, Broaddus and Associates (B&A) Senior Project Manager Phillip Buterbaugh, who oversaw repairs to the jail, told commissioners the HVAC system is past it’s useful life and would soon need replacing.

“They’re keeping it strung together with duct tape and baling wire,” Buterbaugh said.

B&A Vice President and Austin Area Manager Brenda Jenkins, whose firm oversaw a study of the county’s justice system and conducted a physical assessment of the jail, told commissioners in April that the county does not need a new jail and that room for 96 prisoners may be added to the existing jail for less than $25 million. Armed with the results of jail population projections provided by MGT of America and the JFA Institute, B&A will conduct another assessment of the jail to determine how the facility can be modified to accommodate the county’s prison needs for the next 30-50 years.

Two members of the commissioners court have criticized the MGT study. The study, released in late April, includes a jail population projection and analysis of the county’s criminal justice system procedures, along with related recommendations. Commissioners voted, 4-1, to accept the study at last week’s meeting. Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) cast the dissenting vote and sharply criticized the study. Before casting her vote, Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) praised some aspects of the study, but made it clear she does not support all of its conclusions and recommendations.

The county has paid B&A $141,830.40 for overseeing the MGT study, and may yet be billed for the remainder of the contract amount, which totals $30,297.60. Last July, commissioners voted unanimously to authorize B&A to hire MGT for the study. Various county justice system officials formed a stakeholder group to collaborate with MGT during its analysis. Hays County Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), who first suggested hiring MGT for the study, oversaw the process as the court’s representative.

Ford placed a request for a new assessment of the jail on the court’s agenda for Tuesday. The assessment, a Facility Needs Analysis (FNA), would be conducted by TCJS free of charge. Ford and Sumter suggested to their colleagues last week that the court request the FNA. But Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) said he has no need of TCJS’ input, adding that the FNA would not be as “detailed” as the MGT study.

“I do not think they are completely independent in their view of what should be happening here,” Conley said of TCJS. “I think their standards are used over the 254 counties in the same fashion as they will be in ours … So if we want another cookie cutter number thrown at us from the state, that’s fine, but I will take it with a grain of salt.”

Ford replied that TCJS “does not have a dog in the hunt,” and said the FNA would be useful.

TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz said he cannot assess if the county needs a new jail until his agency conducts an FNA. Ratliff declined to offer his opinion as to whether the county needs a new jail, but said he would offer his advice to commissioners should they ask, and would provide any information they need to make the best decision.

B&A used the results of the MGT study to advise commissioners that the jail should probably be expanded by 96 beds rather than built anew, though the firm said its next physical assessment of the jail will determine the best course of action once and for all.

“What we don’t have is a structural analysis of the facility that is there right now,” Ford said.

Barton replied that B&A addressed the physical state of the jail in “excruciating detail” at a commissioners court meeting in April. Ford said she was not convinced by B&A’s assessment, and spoke of the need for the FNA.

“When you don’t get the answer you want, you want another report,” Barton said to Ford.

Ford criticized B&A’s study for not including a core sampling of the jail’s foundation, and Sumter later echoed that criticism.

“I’m going to be voting ‘no’ on this,” Sumter said before the MGT study vote. “I think the report is incomplete. I think that the statistics they use are not ones that are standard. They didn’t take into consideration (prisoner) classification or population management. I think that’s a huge factor when you figure out how many beds you’re going to need. I think the idea or the assumption that we’re not going to be hiring any more police officers and that crime rates are going to be continuing to go down is not an assumption based on fact.”

MGT said it expects the number of law enforcement positions not to increase statewide, citing the economic climate.

“I also think that one of the parts of (the MGT study) was supposed to be an operational assessment,” Sumter said. “I don’t find that in the study in the sense of, if there’s a recommendation of additional beds — and they have that — what does that do to the medical facility, the kitchen, the laundry, and those aren’t in the study that I thought was supposed to be part of that scope. So for me, I just don’t think the study is there, and I really have difficulty weighing why there is — and it was never really explained to me — why there is such a significant difference from what the state recommended in 2007, which they do all the time, and what this recommendation is.”

MGT of America Senior Partner Alan D. Pollock said the previous FNA was conducted in 2005, not 2007, and “took a gross look at the county and compared that to what’s going on in the state.” Pollock said the FNA prediction that crime would increase has been proven wrong.

“TCJS also used a population projection of 40 percent that none of the demographers in the state or in any of the institutions of higher education that do demographic studies and make populations projections used,” Pollock said. “I think the highest was like 33 percent …They also used the peak of the peak in jail population numbers.”

Barton criticized the old FNA, which he said was “about the depth of my pen” and was “re-forwarded” to the county in 2007 by an architectural firm that wanted to “build a big jail for us.”

Sumter criticized the MGT study for concluding the county can manage its jail’s population with “minor outsourcing.” Sumter said even minor outsourcing is “too expensive.”

“I don’t think that’s in the best interest of this county, to do any outsourcing at all,” Sumter said.

Sumter advocated “solving the problem rather than managing it for the next 10 years.”

Barton said the MGT study does not state the county has to outsource prisoners, and said that even minor outsourcing will be “much more economically feasible” than building 500-700 more beds of jail space. In response to Sumter’s criticism of the MGT study, Barton said later in the meeting that a stakeholder group composed of professionals in the county’s criminal justice system “raised good questions, and they addressed peaking and segregation in the final draft” of the study.

“I think we have a really good, in-depth study about looking at systems and processes within our county for justice system and using those changes within those to diminish the numbers, but it all has to be accomplished to meet these general population projections,” Ford said of the MGT study.

JFA Institute President James Austin, whose firm primarily created the jail population projections included in the MGT study, told commissioners in April that his jail population estimates are not based on the implementation of all the study’s recommendations.

“When we do a forecast, we are modeling those policy decisions that are in play currently,” Austin said. “So, what I try to do for any jurisdiction is that we try to model the system as its functioning right now. But you have to bear in mind that that system is changing constantly … So, the key here is not to assume that whatever forecast you come up with, that that is it. That’s not it. It’s really just where you are right now, and that can change.”

Sumter criticized the MTG study for taking a sampling of prisoners rather than looking at every single prisoner in the system. Barton interrupted Sumter, saying her remarks were untrue and that MGT did analyze everyone who came through the jail. Sumter asked why MGT did not do classification modeling if the firm was able to analyze every prisoner that passed through the jail in the last two years.

“I think that particular field, on the classification issue, we had a problem with,” said MGT of America Principal Natacha Peláez-Wagner. “But we looked at every individual, from booking, their sentence, their length of stay. There were some variables that were not captured but we did do a jail extract file for two years for every individual who went through the jail.”

Between last Oct. 1, and April 30, Hays County paid Guadalupe County $478,600 for contract detention services. Hays County will be billed for May sometime this month. Hays County spent $264,900 for “contract detention” services last budget cycle. Due to jail roof repairs, more prisoners were being housed out-of-county than usual this budget year. Commissioners had to declare an emergency four months into this fiscal year to allocate another $300,000 to their $350,000 contract detention budget, which had dried-up.

In the course of its efforts to repair the jail and come into compliance with TCJS orders, the county has paid $48,048 to Albert Sterling & Associates for plumbing services, $152,911.06 to B&A for project management, $528,280.20 to Texas Fifth Wall Roofing for roof repairs, $489,057 to JE Dunn Construction Company for kitchen repairs, $2,828 for 10 replacement light fixtures, $4,449.95 for a steamer, $3,499.99 for an insulated holding cabinet, and $7,886 in repairs to the fire alarm system. The court has authorized the purchasing department to solicit bids for an inmate telephone system for the jail. B&A is assessing the costs of expanding the Hays County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division, located adjacent to the jail.

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