Broaddus and Associates Austin Area Manager Brenda Jenkins and Senior Project Manager Phillip Buterbaugh describe current and planned repairs to the Hays County Jail at the Commissioners Court’s Tuesday meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The Hays County Commissioners Court hopes to persuade the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) to revise an order to shut down the county jail’s kitchen. At the least, the commissioners could make the penalty moot by procedural means.
Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday morning to ask the City of San Marcos to inspect the county jail’s kitchen within a week. If the city inspection finds no threat to the immediate health and safety of inmates, commissioners will ask the TCJS to withdraw or amend its recent remedial order mandating the closure of the jail kitchen by Nov. 20.
The request would effectively abate the order until the next regular TCJS meeting in February. By then, the county might buy enough time to satisfy the TCJS, thus saving the county tens of thousands of dollars that would otherwise be spent leasing a mobile kitchen.
“If we could do it on our own timeline, we would only need the mobile kitchen for a few weeks, or less than a month,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (R-Kyle) immediately after Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting.
Commissioners said they will close the county jail kitchen by Nov. 20 if the city inspection produces a failing grade.
Sheriff Tommy Ratliff told commissioners Tuesday that no inmates have suffered from injuries or food borne illnesses thus far.
Though the jail commission could review its decision before February, former TCJS Executive Director Terry Julian told commissioners Tuesday that TCJS is not likely to convene for a special session before February.
Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy told commissioners that they have solid legal grounds for asking TCJS to review its decision to issue the order. Should TCJS refuse to withdraw or amend its order to accommodate the county, commissioners may appeal the decision to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.
“In my opinion, the remedial order is not remedial, it is punitive,” said Kennedy to commissioners this week. “It’s creating an emergency where we have to then deviate from our regular purchasing procedure, go out and grab the first thing we can find … We, in fact, did show them that we were diligently pursuing a solution.”
The county recently received bids for the leasing of a mobile kitchen. The lowest mobile kitchen provider bid came in at $11,200 per month, plus a $3,500 setup and delivery fee. Commissioners said the lowest-bidding company, American Mobile Kitchens, is based in Washington.
County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said the bidders from Texas were more expensive. State law requires the county to either choose the lowest responsible bidder for non-professional services that exceed $25,000 or reject all bids and publish a new notice.
After the county failed an invited inspection in April and a surprise inspection in September — and was rebuked after a surprise inspection on Oct. 14 and one last week — the nine TCJS commissioners issued the kitchen-closing remedial order during their regular meeting in Austin on Nov. 5. Ratliff and all commissioners except Barton attended.
The jail commission issued the remedial order on advice from TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz, and based on photographic evidence gathered by one of his inspectors during last week’s surprise inspection. Commissioners said they were unaware of that inspection until they arrived at the meeting and were shown the photographs.
“We didn’t get an opportunity to see or be notified of anything before we got there,” Sumter said last Thursday. Sumter said the inspector did not contact the sheriff or anyone on the commissioners court before or after his inspection. Sumter said she did not know why the county was not told of the inspection, and she said most TCJS inspections are accompanied by a report.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) disputed the nature of the kitchen photographs, which he said may not actually depict mold. Among other deficiencies, such as the jail’s deteriorating, leaky roof, mold in the kitchen is a major point of noncompliance cited in past TCJS inspections.
Conley said Tuesday that after speaking with TCJS members — some of whom are on commissioners courts in other counties — since last week’s meeting, he is “100 percent confident” that TCJS members would not have issued the remedial order if they had been given adequate time to examine the county’s report of its progress on jail repairs and its timeline for further improvements.
On Oct. 1, the jail commission gave the county 30 days to demonstrate progress along a timeline to bring the county jail into compliance with state standards. On Oct. 30, Sumter responded with a letter to Muñoz.
Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said Tuesday that they had expected last week’s TCJS meeting to go better than it did, and were surprised at the remedial order.
This week, Sumter signed a $424,000 contract with Austin-based Texas Fifth Wall Roofing. The company may finish its work on the jail roof by the middle of next month. Kitchen repairs are expected to be complete by mid-March.
Hays County commissioners in October authorized an expenditure of $1,455,388 in short-term repairs to the jail. Other pending repairs to the jail 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 county is paying Broaddus and Associates (B&A) about $246,400 to conduct a physical assessment of the jail. B&A subcontractor MGT is conducting an analysis of the county’s criminal justice system. The two firms’ studies, expected to be concluded by approximately January, will bear on the commissioners court’s decision of whether to increase the size of the current jail or build a new jail. MGT’s study will suggest ways for county officials to streamline the justice system to avoid the expense of incarcerating people longer than necessary.
The current jail is too small to house the number of people imprisoned by the county. The county spent $264,900 during the last budget cycle to house 25 inmates in Guadalupe County. Ratliff said last week that the county was then housing 56 prisoners out-of-county, more than usual due to ongoing repairs.
Sumter said last week that the county was scouting for architects for a new jail just before Sheriff Allen Bridges’ death in December. Sumter and Ratliff last week voiced support for the building of a new jail rather than an expansion of the current facility. Representatives of HDR and Burns Architects have appeared at commissioners court meetings and expressed interest in helping the county expand the existing jail or construct a new one.
Ratliff last week said that a new jail may cost the county “close to $50-or-$60 million, probably.” County Auditor Bill Herzog said last week said the county has not yet conducted a cost estimate regarding jail expansion or new jail construction.
“I would not want to guess the amount because of all of the variables that effect the price, especially the state of the economy,” Herzog said.
With a $5.5 million county infrastructure fund stressed by a road and bridge building, a new Precinct 2 office and a new government center (which could take $4.5 million per year by itself), the jail adds one more component for the county to fund.
“We will not have enough in that infrastructure fund to pay (for) both the government center and the jail,” Ingalsbe said. “I think another thing we can do as we continue on and if we can buy some time with the short-term fixes (to the jail) is that we continue to build (more cents) into that fund. And so, if we do go out and borrow the money (for the jail), then we won’t have to either raise taxes — or it would be a minimal increase.”
Hays County Property taxes increased 1.42 cents this fiscal year to 46.92 cents per $100 of taxable value. Debt service payments in this year’s budget are expected to total $10.45 million Debt payments in FY 2009 totaled $7.3 million. Operating funds in the new budget total $75 million, just under the $75.9 million in the FY 2009 budget.