McLennan County’s downtown jail, closed since 2010, continues to cost money in the form of utility expenses, and its future remains uncertain because of a lack of prisoners.
Keeping the lights on and occasional maintenance in the facility helps prevent the jail from further dilapidation. Commissioners have spent about $1.2 million in renovations since its closing.
County officials hoped the downtown facility could reopen to house overflow from the Jack Harwell Detention Center, but so far there hasn’t been one.
County Judge Scott Felton said LaSalle Corrections, which manages the Jack Harwell center, could potentially house its inmates in the county’s downtown jail, bringing in a revenue stream for the county to help offset the cost of Jack Harwell.
Overflow was expected from housing inmates sent from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but ICE has stopped sending those awaiting deportation, resulting in a decrease of funds for LaSalle Corrections.
“What was driving that demand for beds is the amount of ICE prisoners that LaSalle was holding for the federal government. Now there’s not (as) many arrests for undocumented folks as there was,” Felton said.
Renovations to the downtown jail halted in April 2014. Felton said the facility still needs a ventilation system, but could open quickly if needed. LaSalle Corrections has offered to put up the funding needed to open the doors.
Felton said the Jack Harwell Detention Center is operating between 50 and 60 percent capacity as officials continue to look to other state and federal agencies for contracts to house inmates as a way to bring in more funding.
“Hopefully they’ll be able to negotiate a contract with one of the federal agencies to increase that to a higher percentage of occupancy,” Felton said.
Commissioner Kelly Snell said the county used to bring in a lot of money from the downtown jail.
Budget Manager Frances Bartlett said $1,206,768 has been spent out of the permanent improvement fund for the downtown jail since it closed. The county continues to pay electric, water and gas for the building. For fiscal year 2014, $118,280 was spent on those utilities, Bartlett said. Since it has been closed, $395,662 has been spent on utilities, she said.
Commissioner Ben Perry said the inmate numbers are low at Harwell so there’s no need to even talk about opening the downtown jail, which is paid for, unlike the Harwell center.
“Until the federal government decides immigration laws are something that need to be enforced I’m afraid all the facilities like ours aren’t going to see population issues,” Perry said.
Perry said whether commissioners like Harwell or not, they were handed the project when they took office.
“It’s unfortunate and frustrating but that’s the situation the court was handed,” Perry said.
The Harwell center holds 816 prisoners and the neighboring McLennan County Jail holds about 900. The county’s jail is separated from the Harwell Center by a kitchen and laundry room. The downtown jail can hold more than 300 people.
Commissioner Will Jones said there are not a lot of outside prisoners coming in to local jails. But Jones said the county does have an advantage because recent refinancings makes Harwell more competitive and able to house inmates cheaper than other facilities.
Commissioners in November completed the sale of bonds issued to build the detention center in a refinancing deal expected to save $12.9 million in long-term financing costs. The $49 million bond package was originally issued in 2009 to finance construction of the center. Refinancing lowered the interest rate from 6.624 to 3.48 percent.
The $49 million detention center was built by the McLennan County Public Facility Corp., a governing body formed by the county to issue revenue bonds without creating a debt liability for the county.
Jones said, as the population across the county and state continues to rise, there will be more people that need to be housed in jails.
“There’s probably going to be a day when that downtown facility is needed,” Jones said.
Until that time comes, Jones said, there’s not a cheaper solution to handling the downtown jail.
“There’s not a good solution there,” he said. “I just don’t know if there’s a really good answer.”
Perry said the worst thing that could be done would be to shut everything down in the downtown jail. A building immediately starts dilapidating without care, which would create an even large restoration costs were it to ever reopen, Perry said.
Part of the jail is still used by the federal courts. Perry said prisoners brought over from Harwell are placed in a holding area in the jail as they await trial, he said. He said he would hate to see the building be released from the county, because it could be a necessity in the future.
“This court is going to have to deal with it and I don’t see it getting better any time soon,” Perry said.
The county is in a three-year contract with LaSalle Corrections until June 13, 2016, said Dustin Chapman, a legal adviser to the county. The parties have the ability to terminate the contract at that time, or can agree to a one-year renewal two more times after that, Chapman said.
The county will have to rebid the contract after June 13, 2018.