McLennan County commissioners Tuesday voted 4-1 to let a new company run the Jack Harwell Detention Center on State Highway 6 in hopes it can better generate revenue by attracting federal prisoners instead of relying so heavily on county inmates.
Only Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson voted against the measure, saying he “could not in good conscience” vote for a proposal that would require the county to pay for the housing of inmates who do not exist just to meet thresholds the new jail manager would impose.
With Tuesday’s decision, LaSalle Corrections will take control of the 816-bed Harwell center June 13. Commissioners chose its proposal over that of New Jersey-based Community Education Centers Inc.,
which has run the jail since it opened in 2010.
LaSalle manages 11 facilities in Louisiana and Texas with a total inmate count of 8,000 and has offices in Ruston, La., and Dripping Springs, Texas.
Commissioners said they gave the edge to LaSalle because of its stability and its track record of persuading federal agencies to contract for its services.
“LaSalle believes its relationships and expertise will help McLennan County market its available beds to the Northern and Southern District of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to the U.S. Marshalls Service and to be prepared for any future Texas Department of Criminal Justice needs,” the county said in a written statement.
County officials said CEC relied too much on county inmates to fill beds at the Harwell center, especially after the county’s inmate count began to climb two years ago.
Projections have the county spending up to $6 million on overflow inmate housing this year, twice the amount budgeted.
CEC had no thresholds in its expiring contract with the county, but included them in its new proposal.
It also wanted a 90-day opt-out option “if its numbers were not good,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry, who added, “That was a deal killer for me.”
Commissioners Tuesday accepted LaSalle’s proposal, which includes a three-year management agreement that could stretch to five years. The deal includes prisoner counts, or thresholds, the county will strive to meet or risk paying $45.50 to LaSalle for each empty bed.
For example, during each of the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2014, the county must make an average of 325 overflow prisoners a day available to the Jack Harwell center. If the county drops below that number, it would owe LaSalle $45.50 per inmate per day it fell below that average, according to the proposal.
But LaSalle would reduce the county threshold by one inmate for each noncounty prisoner it oversees at the jail.
“And the feds pay $7 to $10 more per prisoner per day than the county,” Perry said.
Revenues received by LaSalle will go, in part, to pay off $49 million in bonds issued to build the Harwell center.
“I do have concerns about the thresholds, but both proposals had them. We’ve got to have someone running our jail, and we only received two offers,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said. “Lester (Gibson) is right. We don’t want to be paying for empty beds. But we felt LaSalle was the least risky of the two.”
LaSalle reportedly will try to use as many existing employees of the Harwell center as possible, according to a county release.
“We have been blessed to have a relatively good history of increasing the jail population for our clients,” said Billy McConnell, an executive with LaSalle. “We are confident we can provide a service that the county will find satisfactory.”
County officials said LaSalle also has proposed managing the downtown jail, now closed, if prisoner levels increase enough to warrant its use.