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Ellis County will look at hiring jail consultant

4/29/2012

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Overcrowding in the Ellis County Jail will be the focus of the county's space needs committee when it meets Wednesday evening.

"I think we're at the point we know what we need," Sheriff Ed Harbin said of what needs to be done to cure overcrowding in the Ellis County Jail. "The funding part is the stumbling block."

Ellis County Administrator Greg Sund isn't sure all the answers are known, and that's why he's sent out requests for proposals from jail consultants. Proposals from three consultants will be the topic of conversation when the group meets Wednesday.

Harbin only recently was notified of the meeting and what would be covered.

The committee simply might urge the county to move ahead with hiring an architect to design either an expansion or a new jail.

"The past can't exactly predict the future," Sund said, "but it gives you an idea of what's going on."

He thinks a jail consultant might be able to look at the whole picture, including how much is being spent by the county, including the cost of housing inmates elsewhere.

And he thinks the information a consultant might provide could help the county support whatever process it chooses to pay for a new or expanded facility -- whether it comes in the form of a sales tax or a property tax.

But with people on the road, that presents a risk, he said.

"All of these things are a real concern," Sund said, but adding cells is not the solution if they won't be used.

Harbin thinks they will and doubts the solution simply is raising capacity to 50 or 60 inmates.

"Within five to 10 years, we'd be spending money again," he said.

But there's already a lot on the county's plate in terms of upcoming projects.

Sund said there's a need for a new emergency medical services building, a new fire station, as well as the impending move of many county offices to the Commerce Bank building once the bank builds a new facility at 22nd and Vine.

And then there's the remodeling of the Ellis County Courthouse into a facility that essentially houses only the court system.

The EMS building could cost as much as $3 million, Sund said, while the costs for rural fire, the Commerce bank and courthouse remodeling costs are uncertain.

Costs for the jail have been estimated at anywhere from $1 million to $5 million.

To pay for that, the county has been looking at the idea of putting before voters a request for a half-percent sales tax -- after the existing tax for the sports complex expires.

"There's no automatic extension or anything like that," he said. "And at the same time, the commission hasn't decided how it wants to finance that."

Some of it could fall to property taxes.

In preparation to Wednesday's meeting, Sund approached consultants.

"I've received three proposals at this point," he said. "I just found some firms, and that's what they do is jail consulting."