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Sheriff proposes $7.2 million jail expansion

by Carolyn Kahant for TaxpayersWatch


     A newly built Kerr County Jail opened in 1996, with the expectation that it would carry us into at least 2011, possibly  2016. But nine years later, Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer has come before the county commissioners with the bad news that overcrowding has already become a problem, and will only get worse.


     At a special "workshop" meeting on June 14, our commissioners appeared sympathetic to Hierholzer's proposal that the county build a 144-bed addition to the existing jail, at a cost of approximately $7.2 million.


     Some of the reasons given for the high number of detainees were slow access to courts and judges, superior law enforcement activity, unhelpful state laws, and population growth.


     TaxpayersWatch has studied the Sheriff's written proposal, which includes cost figures for several levels of expansion. Like Goldilocks in the Bear's house, we're given a choice between  small, medium and large. The small addition of 48 beds would cost approximately $2.4 million, but last only two years (not worth the effort, in the Sheriff's opinion). The medium version of 96 beds would cost approximately $4.8 million and should last six years (Hmmm). But with the big version, 144 beds, we might get ten to fifteen years out of it for the $7.2 million cost. Hierholzer favors the last as most cost-effective.


     In addition, the report gives an estimate of the level of debt payments we would be required to budget on a 20 year bond. They range from $125,481 to $361,385 annually, depending on the size of the addition. This means we would be paying well after the new jail has already been outgrown. This debt would have to be re-serviced to include new debt for additional building. In other words, we'll be digging ourselves into an ever deepening hole, just as our federal government has done.


     With a larger jail, from 7 to 20 additional staff members will be required, adding up to three-quarters of a million dollars in salaries to our annual budget, twice as much as the debt payment itself. It should also be recognized that building costs will invariably come in higher than estimates, perhaps as much as 20%. We'd be looking at an annual budget increase of well over a million dollars.


Jail population growth almost twice general growth


     TaxpayersWatch thinks we need to look for other, hopefully smarter, solutions. Results of a 2002 study that is referred to in the proposal show that, based on a five-year average, Kerr County population grew at 2% per year, while jail population grew at 3.6% and daily bookings by 14.4%! On several occasions, the Sheriff has explained this to us as being due to the superior law enforcement job he is doing for the county. He adds another reason: recent rulings that require an officer to book individuals into jail in instances that previously were left to the officer's discretion. (We have no figures on how many bookings fall under this category. We'll make a comment, however, that when lawmakers pass such laws, they don't take into consideration the costs to small communities, and we doubt that very many small communities follow that law to the letter.)


     The Sheriff agrees that a major problem is getting people through the system. The jail has many detainees who can't or don't come up with bail money. Some wait up to one year for their court date, creating great expense for the taxpayers. The District Courtrooms and their offices take up the entire 2nd floor of the Kerr County Courthouse, yet it is incredibly quiet up there on most days. District Court is in session only one or two days a week. With the amount of cases that need to go before a district judge, this could be called a travesty of justice. Commissioners and others say it is out of their hands; all district business follows state laws. Well, what about lobbying? If every Kerr County citizen ... yes, YOU ... made a couple of phone calls to specific officials (say, your commissioner and your district judge), we would see some action on this matter.  


     Another way to reduce the jail population is through utilizing "work" and "work release"  programs.  Hierholzer says up to 48 inmates could qualify to have their sentences reduced by up to two-thirds by gaining credit for one day for every day they are assigned to a "public works" job, like doing groundskeeping at the Courthouse, public cemetaries, etc. The most trustworthy inmates can go out to a job daily through the Work Release Program. The community should get behind expanding these programs to the maximun extent possible, while still ensuring the safety of residents. This is better rehabilitation than sitting in a jail cell. The commisioners were enthusiastic about these programs and encouraged the Sheriff to continue to develop them.



Facing up to some negatives


     Governor Rick Perry has a bill before him, HB 2296, that authorizes state jail felonies, at the request of the prosecutor, to be prosecuted as Class A misdemeanors, which allows the felon to be sentenced to up to one year in a county jail, rather than a state facility. The state, you see, is also experiencing over-crowding, and, as a solution, passes the problem down to counties to foot the bill. (Now, here we need a little lesson in government 101: This is what happens when the larger or "higher" body legally trumps the rights of the smaller -- the state over the county, the federal government over the state. In other words, they do whatever they darn well please.)


     The Sheriff is concerned that we will have to send our Kerr County inmates to be housed in out-of-county jails. He doesn't like the idea of his deputies having to transport inmates back and forth. However, at a cost of $37 to $50 per day to house them out-of-county, it seems a reasonable solution for post-adjudicated inmates during times when the population exceeds the norm. With the cost of new construction at $50,000 per bed, we can cover a lot of $50 days.


Why we disagree


     Might we point out that the Sheriff has, at last count, 40 deputies, well beyond the number in comparable counties. (See article on Kerr County productivity/staffing - "KC weighs in too fat."). This may be a clue as to why we have such a high jail population compared to our general population. Commissioner Buster Baldwin says the jail is filled with "bad people" who need to be there. We question that. It's possible we have people there who don't need to be there. If that is the case, it would surely promote justice and help our bottom line if we could get them out.


     TaxpayersWatch doesn't want to see Kerr County become the Detention Center of the Hill Country. Our public officials seem to believe housing inmates from other countys' overflow is a good way to pay for our jail. We believe that efforts aimed at bringing incarceration levels down (such as speeding up court dates) should be our focus, rather than increasing the size of our jail. The lesson we should have learned from the recent, ill-conceived JDF expansion is that it was based on one or two "good years" that turned out to be an anomaly. We call for greater debate between citizens and county officials concerning the entire law enforcement/criminal justice system.

TaxpayersWatch for Kerr County
Webmaster Keely Vanacker