Jack Harwell jail (copy)

County estimates show a potential cost savings if the sheriff’s office takes over operations of the Jack Harwell Detention Center.

McLennan County could save more than $1 million per year if it hands over operation of the Jack Harwell Detention Center to the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office from the for-profit LaSalle Corrections, according to estimates the sheriff’s office has presented to county commissioners.

The analysis came earlier this year after the county’s contract with LaSalle increased from about $6.1 to about $8 million per year. Commissioners declined to disclose the estimate for taking over the jail at the time, but a public information request by the Tribune-Herald revealed the figures.

“It is absolutely a possibility in what I am thinking will be the near future,” County Judge Scott Felton said of the sheriff’s office taking over operations.

The move could also allow the introduction of programs at Harwell that the sheriff’s office has already introduced at the McLennan County Jail, also known as the Highway 6 Jail, Felton said. The county owns both jails, which share a kitchen facility. LaSalle is hired to operate Harwell, and the sheriff’s office operates the McLennan County Jail.

“We have done a lot at the Highway 6 Jail in regards to increasing our ability to affect mental illness and giving mental health services to an extent, and although it’s hard to do, I think we can expand that in the future,” Felton said.

As of last month, Harwell was housing 1,093 inmates, including 335 inmates sent by McLennan County. Various entities pay for Harwell to house the rest, including many federal inmates. The county’s estimates show it would continue to house federal inmates at Harwell if it cuts ties with LaSalle.

That exchange of costs and revenue is just one set of factors in the financing of the jail’s operations. Remaining payments on $3.3 million in debt for Harwell’s construction, which have been paid by LaSalle under its contract, and the added liabilities the county would take on, are also playing into commissioners’ considerations.

But the estimates available now show an overall savings, officials said.

“At the proper time and when the costs balance out the right way, and right now the commissioners are having to weigh that, but at the right time it will be beneficial for the county to take over that facility,” McLennan County Chief Deputy David Kilcrease said. “The startup costs would be significant, but you look at what would balance out and you have to look at hidden costs that you don’t foresee, but it is something that will be evaluated further.”

Kilcrease said the one-time startup costs may range between $1 million and $2 million.

McLennan County’s contract with LaSalle allows either entity to opt out with a 90-day notice.

Sheriff’s Capt. Ricky Armstrong said he would likely need to hire about 100 new staff members to run Harwell, and they would need training on jail standards, a cost projected in the estimate.

“With the amount of officers, the revenue we would receive from federal prisoners and with the amount we are paying LaSalle, which we won’t have to pay anymore, we would come up with a savings of anywhere between $300,000 to $1 million a year,” Armstrong said.

Even skewing cost estimates away from the county’s favor, the sheriff’s office could run Harwell for no more than the county’s cost with LaSalle, he said.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry, who serves on the Texas Jail Standards Commission, said the numbers appear to suggest an opportunity for savings to the county. The item remains under consideration, but he believes managing the Jack Harwell jail would benefit inmates and the county as a whole.

“At the end of the day, and we’ve said this openly before, it’s not a matter of if McLennan County runs that facility, it’s a matter of when,” Perry said. “We have 335 prisoners over there right now, and our jail population is not going to shrink.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones also said he would support the move.

“The analysis is that we could possibly save some money and I am for that,” Jones said. “I am for the plan that the captain of the jail, Ricky Armstrong, has put together and I support his plan 100 percent.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said commissioners are always looking to save money, but the biggest item for consideration is whether McLennan County would continue to have federal inmates under a federal contract. He said jails lobby to get federal contracts, and that revenue would be critical for the financial viability of taking over operations.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson did not answer calls for comment.

Felton said the county is not likely to take over operations at Harwell in the upcoming budget year, but commissioners will continue to discuss proposals and financial obligations. Commissioners approved resources this year for GED classes and vocational opportunities for inmates serving time in McLennan County Jail, and he would like to eventually see those programs at Harwell, he said.

Perry said he shares Felton’s vision for Harwell.

“I would like to see us expanding our programs, putting the veterans (in Jack Harwell), putting the people who are working on their GEDs over there, and I truly want it to be more of a rehabilitation facility over an incarceration unit,” Perry said. “For me, I am not interested in running another incarceration unit and I want to see us do something different and that benefits the citizens of the county and the taxpayers.”

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

Recommended for you