by BRAD ROLLINS
The Commissioners Court again erupted into raised voices and rancor during a discussion this week of the Hays County Jail, a topic that has proven to be more durable than even the court’s storied disagreements over road spending.
The point of contention this week was Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford’s proposal to ask the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to conduct a facility needs analysis on the jail, a week after the court formally accepted a consultant’s extensive findings on the same subject.
A study by MGT of America, completed earlier this year, indicated the county should plan for an average daily jail population of 321 in 2020, with a peak population of 361. The county can accommodate those levels with the addition of one or two pods – 48 to 96 beds – to the current 362-bed jail on Uhland Road in San Marcos instead of building a new one at the cost of at least $60 million.
But an earlier TCJS study, conducted in 2005 but dated 2007, said the county will need 720 beds by 2020 and 956 by 2026. Ford and County Judge Elizabeth Sumter have repeated expressed incredulity at the gap between the two jail population projections while the three other court members are satisfied that the MGT study is more thorough and comprehensive.
“There is no harm in getting more information,” Ford said. A TCJS assessment “may not be so in detail and in depth but I still feel like it’s worth our time to do this.”
Clearly weary of retreading the same ground, commissioners Jeff Barton, Will Conley and Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe opposed re-opening the jail capacity issue and voted against extending an invitation to TCJS. Ford’s motion, seconded by Sumter, failed 3-2.
But before the vote was taken, the court members on both sides of the issue vented frustration with the other. The jail issue has been contentious for well over a year, a chain of events initiated when newly appointed Sheriff Tommy Ratliff invited the Jail Standards Commission to conduct a special inspection of the facility. That failed inspection, a series of failed inspections that followed, ultimately led to the county drawing sanctions from the state agency, which were lifted only last week. The county has spent more than $1.2 million in the last year to correct problems identified in the inspections in addition to the nearly $480,000 it has spent so far this fiscal year to house prisoners in neighboring Guadalupe County.
Against that backdrop, Ratliff and Sumter began pitching the need for a new jail, which did nothing to quell suspicions that they were using the troubled facility as political leverage.
“Some politicians were going out and making some bold, premature pronouncements about our jail needs … and now it’s like they’re sending out an SOS, asking that someone toss them a life preserver because they’re drowning over a particular issue,” Conley said.
At that, both Sumter and Ford jumped in, with Sumter saying, “I take offense to that.”
“The question has never been answered why there is such a big difference” between the two studies, Sumter said. “We’re looking for balance to use in making these decisions.”
Ford said, “I do not have a ‘new jail’ agenda, commissioner.”
Alan Pollock, an MGT senior partner, said the TCJS study used an anticipated 40 percent population growth rate in its projections, which far exceeds the upper range of expectations from the Texas Data Center and other demographers. In addition, the TCJS study found in 2006 the county had an incarceration rate of 2.16 inmates for every 1,000 residents, well below the state average at the time of 2.63 inmates per 1,000 people. Yet the agency used higher incarceration rates ranging to 2.4 inmates per 1,000 in figuring the county’s future jail bed needs.
Barton offered a friendly amendment to Ford’s motion, apparently in jest, that the county invite the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to assess a local habitat conservation plan, TxDOT to assess the county’s road plans and on down the line.
The point, Barton said, is that “we can do another study of a study of a study but at some point if the results are different then we have to do a study of a study of a study of a study.”