Hays County Judge Liz Sumter at last week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
In one of its most contentious discussions of recent months, the Hays County Commissioners Court last week rejected the possibility of a free jail assessment by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) in a 3-2 vote.
TCJS gave the Hays County Jail a passing grade earlier this month after ordering the jail’s kitchen closed in November 2009. Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) both have expressed displeasure that Sheriff Tommy Ratliff called in the state agency last year to inspect the jail, which then failed four such inspections before the kitchen was ordered closed.
Though the county jail now is up to state standard, Ratliff told commissioners earlier this month that maintenance problems are a continuous concern at the facility, which now is more than 20 years old. However, a study of the jail conducted by MGT of America and commissioned by the county said the county can meet its jail needs by adding 96 beds for less than $25 million.
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) objected to the MGT study and advocated a Facility Needs Assessment (FNA) study by TCJS.
“I think we’re going backwards by going back to the state and asking for their evaluation,” Conley said. “I’ve heard the state make comments, for example, on us having prisoners outside of our county. For example, transferring prisoners to Guadalupe County. None of their business. None of their business. We have no obligation under the laws of the State of Texas to have a jail in Hays County. Now, we can transport every single one of those prisoners, if we wanted to, someplace else. It’s not cost-efficient for Hays County. But so long as we’re up to (state) standards, it’s none of their business where we are sending our prisoners, and yet they’re commenting on those types of things. Well, I don’t need Big Brother’s help and I don’t need them looking over my shoulder.”
Ford and Sumter cast the two losing votes in favor of the FNA. Ford and Sumter said the county would benefit from a comparison of a new FNA’s jail population projections with the projections contained in the recently-released MGT study. Ford and Sumter said the projections in the MGT study are too much in conflict with those produced by a 2005 TCJS FNA. Conley and Barton, in turn, said the MGT study is far superior to any TCJS FNA.
“I don’t understand what this continual drive is to study something to death and to look for some answer,” Conley said. “I don’t know what that answer may be. We have a Cadillac and we’re asked to go back to the used Pinto version for an analysis.”
Sumter last year expressed support for a new jail, though after the MGT study began, she adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Conley and Barton have been unequivocally opposed to building a new jail. Conley said the cost of a new jail “looks to be anywhere from the range of $60-70 million,” and, he added, “Quite frankly, it’s not even something we can afford.”
On May 25, the commissioners court voted 4-1, Sumter dissenting, to accept the MGT study. Broaddus and Associations (B&A), which hired MGT of America on the county’s behalf, recently oversaw extensive repairs to the jail to comply with TCJS rules.
Last October, Sumter said, “I do believe that the jail will have to be at least 660 (beds) for us to be able to get any life out of it,” and cited TCJS’ 2005 FNA, which concluded the county would need just less than 1,000 beds within the next 20 years. The jail now has 362 beds. Ford and Sumter said the MGT study seems to drastically underestimate the number of beds needed.
“(Hays County needs) to start looking at long-term solutions, such as building another jail,” said TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz last October, though he more recently adopted a wait-and-see approach to the issue in light of the then-ongoing MGT study.
B&A has almost completed a physical assessment of the jail to determine how much the facility can be expanded. B&A Vice President and Austin Area Manager Brenda Jenkins said her firm will probably present its findings at the June 29 commissioners court meeting. Jenkins said Tuesday that the county jail can “absolutely” be expanded by more than 96 beds, though she said her firm is not yet ready to indicate the maximum number of beds the current jail site can handle.
The county has paid B&A $141,830.40 for overseeing the MGT study and conducting its physical assessment of the jail. The county may yet be billed for the remainder of the contract amount, which totals $30,297.60. The estimated budget for the MGT study and physical assessment is $206,030.
In April, B&A Senior Project Manager Phillip Buterbaugh, who oversaw jail repairs, told commissioners the jail could have “a useful life of 30-50 more years with proper work done now.” In April, MGT Senior Associate and former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier said Hays County’s jail may last another 30 years with proper care.
Sumter called the MGT study “incomplete” and said it does not account for prisoner classification or population management issues. Sumter said the MGT study wrongly assumes the county will not hire more law enforcement and that crime rates will continue to decrease. MGT said it expects the number of law enforcement positions to increase statewide due to the economic climate. Sumter criticized the study for not containing an “operational assessment” examining how the addition of 48 to 96 beds in the jail will affect the building’s medical, kitchen and the laundry facilities.
Frasier said TCJS’ 2005 FNA was too heavily based on the idea that an increase in population implies an increase in the crime rate and number of inmates. MGT of America Senior Partner Alan D. Pollock said the 2005 FNA used a population projection of 40 percent, which he said no demographers in the state or in any institutions of higher education use. Pollock said the 2005 FNA also used “the peak of the peak in jail population numbers.”
Sumter criticized the MGT study for concluding the county can manage its jail’s population with “minor outsourcing,” which she said is “too expensive.” Sumter said the county should not be housing any prisoners in other counties.
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 recent repairs to the jail’s roof, more prisoners have been housed out-of-county than usual this budget year. Commissioners had to declare an emergency four months into the fiscal year to allocate another $300,000 to the depleted $350,000 contract detention budget.
Sumter said the idea of inviting a TCJS study did not seem to garner opposition from her colleagues when Ford raised the issue at the May 25 commissioners court meeting. At the May 25 meeting, Conley and Barton did not say they would oppose an FNA, though Conley called a new FNA “another cookie cutter number thrown at us by the state,” which he said he “would take with a grain of salt.” Sumter said she had at first planned to invite TCJS to conduct the FNA without putting the item on the week’s agenda for a vote. Conley, the chairman of the jail facility assessment committee, indicated that he should have been notified about the item before it was placed on the agenda.
“I hate to say this, but I saw this on the agenda, and, quite frankly I believe it’s simply some politicians who made some very bold, premature assumptions about our jail facility and what was needed, and made those assumptions and those speeches and those presentations locally to different organizations,” Conley said. “And there’s a set of us that said, ‘Hey, let’s take a deep breath and let’s look at this properly.’ And we have done that. And those elected officials and their assumptions were flat wrong. And I think now y’all are looking for, calling out some type of SOS, some type of life preserver to be thrown your way as you are drowning over this particular issue.”
Sumter then began to say something, and Conley raised his voice and said he was not finished speaking, though Sumter persisted.
“Stop right there — I’m really taking offense to that,” Sumter said. “First of all, what you said is incorrect. There were three sheriffs that came to this court and said that we need to do a county facility. So if you are referring to three sheriffs and two other judges, then that’s fine. But I think you are referring to two members of this court, and I don’t believe that that’s the reason this is being asked for at all. There was concern by myself, particularly, who didn’t accept (the MGT study). There was concern about the statistics that were done. The question has never been answered as to why there’s such a big difference between the (2005 FNA and the MGT study). Since it has come to light that the study was 2005, and all of us were thinking it was 2007, that might very well be the reason that there’s a significant difference between the MGT study and what the state was saying. So, with the state having updated information, it may be very close to the same thing as MGT. We’re looking for a balance here to make sure that we’re doing the right thing or the numbers are correct. And if it comes out significantly different, then I think this court has an obligation to it’s citizens and to itself to find out why.”
Barton said inviting another FNA might be a waste of one to three months, and Conley said the FNA would be a waste of state taxpayer dollars.
“The fact that you’re assuming and assessing that I’m putting this on because I’m trying to work some political thing about not having a new jail — I don’t have a not-a-new-jail agenda, commissioner,” Ford said. “I just feel like, and I stated last week, that I had some questions about the numbers of our jail population going forward and how our — there’s a significant discrepancy. I had the MGT study looked at by another jail administrator — totally third-party, had nothing to gain or whatnot. He had some questions about some of the assumptions for the data and the numbers showing that we don’t in the next 10 years only need 48 to 96 (more) beds … I’m not trying to bring in the smoking gun or anything like that. I don’t think I’ve been making bold political statements and assumptions that are wrong, I don’t know what you’re referring to. But I do think the county can access a free study put together by the state jail commission, whose only purpose is there to help counties comply with the law, and they have this service that they will offer, and I see no reason to look at it in light of the study we had done recently.”
Ford then made a motion to request an FNA from TCJS, and Sumter seconded the motion.
“Would you accept a friendly amendment to broaden the scope of the state’s interest in Hays County so that we could have the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality evaluate our air quality program, and our habitat conservation program before we go forward?” Barton said. “And have TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) review all projects over $1 million in the (Hays County) road department, and have the Texas Department of Information Resources look at our web plan?”
Ford stated she would not accept Barton’s friendly amendment.
Asked Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, “Do we continue to look at or question our studies that we pay a lot of money for, or do we start coming back and trying to determine how best to move forward to implement some of these programs so we can help to reduce those numbers in our jail, and then work on adding onto our jail and having the space that we need?”
Ford said she does not question the MGT study’s recommendations regarding how to streamline the county’s justice system. Ford added that she did not expect the suggestion of a new FNA to “stir so much controversy.”Email | Print