Smith County unveils new, less costly jail plan

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - By Layron Livingston - bio | email
Posted by Ellen Krafve - bio | email | Twitter

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - A familiar issue was back before the Smith County Commissioners Court Tuesday afternoon: yet another Smith County jail proposal.

The idea has not changed: save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and reduce jail overcrowding. But, the price is much lower at $33,000,000 - nearly half of what the last plan cost.

This new plan was met with much more approval, but voter feelings are still mixed.

"I'm afraid we're not going to solve our problem with building more jail capacity," said Robert Langham. "It's time for Smith County to quit leading the state in incarceration and get our rates down to somewhere in the middle."

"We've turned down several jail options that have been brought before us, but I feel this time, you finally reached what we were saying, 'Give us what is needed, but don't give us the extras,'" said JoAnn Holt.

"It's not just the money issue with me, it's the safety of these employees and it's getting more and more hazardous as time goes on," said Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith.

No official action has been taken yet but it is possible Smith County voters could see the proposal on the November ballot.

The chances this latest proposal might pass are fairly high. Residents who spoke at the meeting for the most part seemed to approve of this latest proposal. The overall goal for commissioners is to hopefully and finally put the issue to rest.

This time, the fifth time, may be the charm. The $33,000,000 project would include renovations and expansions at both the downtown jail and the county's low-risk facility.

"The plan calls for us to maximize all the space that we own," said Jeff Warr, Smith County commissioner. "We don't buy any buildings. We don't demo anything."

Warr took the reins on the project almost immediately after last year's $60,000,000 jail plan failed. The new plan cuts the price in half, adding more than 300 new beds downtown along with an in-house infirmary, a new kitchen, laundry, and visitation facilities would be added at the low-risk site.

Warr says efficiency was a top priority.

"That's where I rely on architects and engineers to say, 'Okay, if this were designed this way, you could move the process faster and cut down the number of people that are spending time in the Smith County jail,'" he explained.

It would also cut costs; the county auditor estimates jail operations savings at more than $500,000 each year.

"A jail and a sewer treatment plant - you gotta have both of them," said County Judge Joel Baker. "It's not something anybody wants to see, or smell, or touch, but it's there, and you gotta have it. It's part of our infrastructure."

Cynthia Kent was a staunch opponent to past jail plans. Tuesday, she expressed she is against any new plan that comes without the public's approval.

"There should not be an arrogance of government," she said. "Certificates of Obligation go around the voters and so even if this is the best financial plan, the voters should have the say."

"In no way do the commissioners want to go around the will of the people," said Warr. "That's who we work for, but we also want to the right, smart financial thing for them."

Commissioner Warr says he hopes to present the plan to other residents in the county and answer any questions about his plan throughout the coming weeks.

It should also be noted, the plan did receive preliminary approval from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

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