Grassroots America to endorse Smith Co. jail proposal

Published: Apr. 28, 2011 at 2:41 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 28, 2011 at 3:58 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Released by Grassroots America:

TYLER, TX - Grassroots America – We the People has reviewed all of the details presented in the Commissioners Court's regular meetings over the past year, including information on the County web site and in the more than two dozen public presentations made by Commissioner Jeff War and Judge Joel Baker. We find that the Commissioners Court and Sheriff Smith have more than adequately demonstrated both the need for the jail beds and have been absolutely transparent and pro-active in communicating the details far in advance of the beginning of early voting.

• Smith County has been under a remedial order since 2004 from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for non-compliance due to overcrowding:

o Smith County has tried on three different occasions to get in compliance with jail plans that included much higher bed counts to meet long-range 10 – 20 year projections, but the voters have said "No" because the plans were too expensive or included court facilities that drove up the costs;

o Now is the opportunity, at a reasonable cost, to remove the remedial order for a jail – not a courthouse – with approval of the $35 million jail bond proposal.

We well understand the economic challenges made worse by out-of-control government spending that piles up debt. Our members are actively at work on those issues; however, this jail project is not about "wants." It is about a "need" to house inmates locally at the lowest possible price and to stop spending millions of dollars in other counties. It is about saving tax dollars on lower medical costs for inmates and lower transportation costs by having our inmates housed locally next to the courts. Most importantly, this jail plan is about assuming responsibility for the safety of the men and women who wear the law enforcement uniform and are now having to manage inmates in unsafe conditions.

• A one-cent increase in the Smith County Tax Rate for the next 15 years will relieve the long-standing non-compliance problem, save taxpayers in operating costs, and make our law enforcement officers safer.

o The average home-owner's property tax (debt service portion of the tax rate) would increase by approximately $13.00 per year, with the potential for early pay off.

We have reviewed the County's detailed supporting documentation and find the Jail Bond Proposal to be absolutely clear on the construction and financing costs of the plan and the cost benefits for the jail bed expansion and the space for its core support functions (infirmary, laundry, kitchen, sally port, booking). We found nothing contradictory in any of the supporting documents.

• An in-jail infirmary, fully-staffed, will save the county between $600,000 to $800,000 per year, based on the numbers of the daily prisoner load.

• The installation of a new book-in facility, relocation of the laundry, and the video visitation program will streamline operational efficiencies and reduce over-all operating costs.

• The current daily estimated cost of all prisoners (county and out-of-county) is $53.83. After the expansion and improvements, including the debt service, the estimated daily cost would be $46.85 – a savings of $6.98 per inmate, along with improved jail employee and deputy safety. (debt service increases, but operational costs decrease)

• At the last Smith County Commissioners' Court Meeting (April 25) Sherriff Smith reported the out-of-county jail population was 70. If you take the current contract per diem rate of $41.00 per inmate, times the 70 out-of-county prisoners, Smith County paid $2,870 for that one day. This does not include the cost of transporting those prisoners (vehicle depreciation, personnel cost, gas, and upkeep of the vehicle), and the medical care the prisoners may need or receive (an out-of-county cost over which Smith County has no control).

We want to set the record straight about what kind of jail beds the county is short on – the beds needed are for medium and high risk inmates. The County has a sufficient number of beds for low risk inmates. The County cannot mix these populations of inmates, neither can they mix male and female, or inmates with certain medical conditions into the general population. So while the County may have some local jail beds "vacant" and still ship out inmates to other counties, it is because the empty beds are in the low risk facility.

Now, to address the proposed legislation that would allow tents for housing inmates – first of all, Texas is not Arizona. Our local jail system is regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards – an agency that came about as the result of a federal lawsuit involving inmate conditions. If legislation passed to allow tents, the tents would have to be in compliance with all of the standards imposed by the federal ruling, and the tents would likely be approved only for low risk inmates. Tents for more dangerous populations of inmates would require far more detention officers and would require tent jails to be set up out in the county. This would drive up operating costs and pose the question – Who wants a tent jail city close to their rural neighborhood? The proposed tent legislation is not a way to solve the Smith County jail overcrowding problem – which is overcrowding for the medium to high risk inmate population.

We believe it makes sense to lease out any extra beds to the federal government or to another county or city. With a federal court in Tyler, it will be more cost-effective to house federal inmates in a local jail rather than in another county. We appreciate the covenant agreement the Commissioners Court signed which pledges any surplus revenue from contract beds to be applied to paying off the debt faster. This same type of public pledge signed by the Tyler City Council worked well for local taxpayers. The Half-cent sales tax pledge lowered city property taxes because local officials kept their word, and the citizens held them to the pledge. Grassroots America has no reason to distrust the Commissioners Court's pledge and has every reason to believe that citizens will hold them (and future court members) to this pledge. Since the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee and the Alternatives to Incarceration Program are successfully working to reduce recidivism and streamline the criminal justice process, we have every reason to believe that the 384 beds included in this basic plan would not be immediately filled with our own inmates. A revenue stream to retire the debt early makes good business sense, and a review of the financing plan with the projected revenue stream for leased beds shows county taxpayers could save up to $13 million on the project.

Next, let me clear up a mis-representation that Smith County does not pay off its debt:

o In 2001, outstanding debt - $22,525,000

o In 2011, outstanding debt - $5,710,000

o In 2012, another $1.4 million will be paid off.

Finally, while we were not happy with the 2.5 cent county tax increase last year, the Commissioners Court reduced the initially proposed increase by almost half and reduced spending by 12.5% from the 2010 revised budget amount. The spending cuts were accomplished by overall operating cuts in the majority of departments, the elimination of 33 full-time positions, employee pension contribution reductions, and no major equipment purchases for FY11. In addition, three members of the Commissioners Court annually cut their own pay and do not receive the full budgeted amount in the salary plan for Commissioners. Not many elected officials will cut their own pay before cutting benefits for employees, and we find the Commissioners Court to be very receptive to sound recommendations for cost cutting and open to citizen involvement.

Tough economic times usually bring more crime. Every day news reports are full of stories about fuel theft and burglaries. Crime stats may be down in certain areas now, but we want to be responsible and back up law enforcement with a place to lock up law breakers when the space is needed. Because we have fully studied the plan details and deemed them sound, seen the presentation numerous times, had our questions answered, and want to support increased safety for the men and women in county law enforcement, we endorse the Smith County Jail Bond Proposal and urge citizens to vote "yes."