McLennan County is planning to start running the Jack Harwell Detention Center in October, after the jail’s for-profit operator decided not to renew its contract.
LaSalle Corrections CFO Tim Kurpiewski notified the county in a letter Thursday.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to work with McLennan County over the last six years and will do everything we can to help the county transition the facility to the sheriff and his staff,” Kurpiewski wrote.
County officials have been publicly discussing whether to have the sheriff’s office take over operation of the jail since the county’s annual cost to hire LaSalle increased last year from about $6 million to about $8 million. The jail also failed its last three state inspections, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued a remedial order against Harwell earlier this month.
McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Ricky Armstrong presented estimates to commissioners in September showing the county could save as much as $1 million in annual operating costs by taking over control of the jail. Budget estimates presented to commissioners in a closed meeting earlier this week have not been made public.
Armstrong serves as administrator of the McLennan County Jail, which is operated by the sheriff’s office and shares a kitchen with Harwell. The county built the Harwell facility to serve as an overflow jail, using proceeds from a $49 million bond package issued in 2009. Harwell has been operated by for-profit companies since it opened in 2010, and LaSalle has run it since 2013. The companies’ ability to turn a profit has depended on the number of federal inmates the jail has been hired to house.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said the job the sheriff’s office has done at the McLennan County Jail bodes well for Harwell.
“I’ve got tremendous amount of confidence in the sheriff and his team, specifically Capt. Armstrong and his team, and I think they will take care of the facility and keep the costs down,” Felton said. “I don’t think compliance will be an issue as we’ve had a lot of inspections and we’ve passed every time since I’ve been here in 2012.”
Chief Deputy David Kilcrease said the county will work with LaSalle for a smooth transition and will bring Harwell into compliance with state standards. It will need to hire about 110 employees, and LaSalle employees working at Harwell will be notified of the coming change and job opportunities.
“Is this takeover going to happen without hiccups or problems and be perfectly smooth? There are going to be some hiccups, but by this time next year, we are going to have that jail running smooth and we will have it passing inspections,” Kilcrease said.
The cost of the transition and recurring operating costs will be factored into the county’s budget for its upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1 and coincides with the end of the county’s contract with LaSalle Corrections. Preliminary estimates are being refined during county commissioners’ ongoing budgeting process, County Attorney Mike Dixon said via email.
Operational takeovers of jails “do not happen every day” so unknown costs are likely to arise, Dixon wrote. Everything from the number of people in jail, the number of inmates the U.S. Marshals Service hires the jail to hold and the strength of the labor market, to the condition of the building and the service life of its equipment will influence the net cost of running the jail, he said.
“The hope, of course, is to operate the facility at a cost that is budget neutral, equal or less than the costs incurred for private operation,” Dixon wrote. “However, whether that goal can be reached can only be determined after thorough assessment during the budget process.”