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Some wonder if jail plans are big enough

1/14/2014

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

At last week's Ellis County Commission meeting, county administrator Greg Sund said county health administrator Butch Schlyer had relayed concerns from some jailers that expansion plans might not meet the county's needs.

The Ellis County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center, including the county jail, are due to undergo renovations and remodeling estimated to cost $8.5 million. Of that, approximately $6.7 million to $7.1 million will be construction costs.

In May, voters approved a 0.5-percent county sales tax for the courthouse/LEC project and also for construction of an EMS rural/fire building.

The estimate for the EMS/rural fire building is $3.5 million, with total project cost estimated at $3.8 million after professional fees. The tax would sunset in five years or when the project is paid off, whichever comes sooner.

A jail study completed in 2012 estimated the need for approximately 90 beds for the jail moving forward. However, that would be cost-prohibitive, Sund said.

"We could not do that and keep this facility," Sund said Monday of the jail, which will be expanded and renovated. "If we went to the 90-some we would be building a new jail."

Previously, Sund said a new jail building would be much more expensive.

"Then, we're not talking about a $3 (million) or $4 million jail project; we're talking about a $15 (million) to $20 million jail project," he said.

The jail now can hold 30 inmates, but with expansion and renovations, it could hold 72. During the weekend between Christmas and New Year's, there were 63 inmates housed by the county, including some in other facilities in the region. The county is forced to routinely hold inmates in other counties' jails.

"Our (inmate) count goes up; it's been increasing over the last several years," said Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin, adding inmate counts in the 60s is not uncommon. "There is concern. Everything we have is basically pre-trial. We have very few serving a sentence."

In a public forum April 23 about the then-proposed sales tax, Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees said the jail capacity would increase, and as a result, the county no longer would need to house prisoners out of county regularly.

"This should give us sufficient capacity for 20, 25 years," Drees said at the forum.

"He didn't just throw a number out there; he was trying to be conservative at the time, too," Sund said of Drees' comment. "You just do the best you can do."

Harbin remembered his reaction to comments about how long the new jail would meet the county's needs.

"My comment was, we would make it last as long as we could because I couldn't give them a definite date, a length of time, because of various things that affect the jail population," Harbin said.

"We've been concerned about it," Harbin said. "We've had numerous discussions. That was the project we were given. We were going to try to make the best of it."

On Monday, Drees stood by his statement at the public forum.

"If we come up with 72 to 75 beds, I'm a happy camper," he said.

Harbin said there are many factors affecting jail population.

"I know there's been comments from both municipal court and district court that the reason they're not sentencing more people to jail is because of space," Harbin said. "I know that once the new facility opens up, I expect them to sentence more people to serve whatever time in jail. That's an added issue we've looked at, talked about.

"The other issue, the state is changing their sentencing guidelines because they're overcrowded. Some things are coming back down to local jurisdictions."

"I think it will serve us for a while," Sund said of the new jail. "The inmate population is pretty unpredictable.

"You don't go out and build a 300-bed facility in hopes someday you might need it. You can only do what you can afford."

County officials are scheduled to meet with the architect for the courthouse/LEC project, Treanor and Associates, every two weeks, starting Jan. 28.

"We're going to start to finalize plans, going to talk about the cost of the components, and all those kinds of things," Sund said. "Can we actually afford what everybody asked for? That doesn't mean just the jail. That means all of the areas occupying the Law Enforcement Center and the courthouse. It's a big project.

"We have to get voter approval to pay for these types of projects. You always have to be aware of what the costs are."