Coryell County commissioners approve May bond election for new jail

Cove Leader-Press 

The Coryell County commissioners approved a bond election for only a new jail facility for a special election in May during their regular meeting Tuesday morning. 
Prior to voting on the bond election, the commissioners approved two interlocal agreements with Limestone County and Mills County to house Coryell County inmates, with Limestone County at a rate of $45 per day and Mills County at a rate of $50 per day. 
The commissioners also discussed other counties to possibly have agreements with for housing inmates. Coryell County Judge Roger Miller presented a list from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that detailed the inmates in each county and the beds available. 
Coryell County has 105 pretrial felons and five convicted felons, four parole violators, 15 parole violators with a new charge, 12 pretrial misdemeanors and two convicted misdemeanors. 
The Coryell County Jail has a capacity of 92 inmates and is presently at 96 percent capacity with 89 total inmates. 
Most of the other counties that are willing to take in Coryell County inmates will only take 10 or less and will only take “the perfect inmate”, according to Sheriff Scott Williams, meaning an inmate who is not violent, on medication or problematic. 
Williams said he was looking into an agreement with Bosque County to be voted on at a future meeting. 
The commissioners had three orders to choose from for the bond election: one just for the government building, one just for the jail, or one that featured both facilities. 
Miller shared that County Tax Assessor Justin Carothers had calculated that the May Special Election will cost the county an estimated $25,000. 
The election date is scheduled for Saturday, May 1, and the early voting period will begin April 19 and end April 27. 
Miller said he had concerns about the jail design and related costs. He pointed to the previous jail design that had originally been considered years ago that was 64,000 square feet and included 12,000 square feet of Sheriff’s Office space. The current design, by Southwest Architects, Inc. is for 80,000 square feet and does not include sheriff office space. 
The new design does have an infirmary. Miller asked whether an infirmary was required if a nurse was not required to be on site 24/7. 
According to the Jail Commission, there are different standards for construction and for operation. Construction rules require an infirmary to be planned into a facility over a certain size, even though the operation rules don’t require the County to have a live body in that infirmary, according to Brandon Belt. 
Miller also questioned the need for five exercise rooms and four multipurpose rooms, explaining that there was a difference of 16,000 square feet between the older design and the newer design. At a construction cost of $385 per square foot, Miller estimated that difference equaled an additional cost of $6.1 million. 
“I think that’s a pretty significant number when we’re considering taxpayers paying for this,” Miller said. 
Commissioner Kyle Matthews pointed out that the design was purposeful. 
“I think the unique design is to minimize the movement of prisoners while yet still not violating what the state says we’re required to give them, and the whole purpose of the design is to keep them in one area,” Matthews said. “Previous designs, you have to remove them from their holding facility and that’s where potential incidents would occur.”
Williams added that the state mandates a minimum amount of hours of daylight or sunshine per week for the inmates, so the inmates have to be able to go into recreation areas.  
Jeff Hefflefinger of Southwest Architects also spoke during the meeting and said that the previous design was for a facility with a maximum capacity of 192 beds, while the new designs are for 250-beds. 
“As far as detention is handled these days, we’ve changed our philosophies from moving inmates around to trying to keep them more cornered into a space to minimize our staffing requirements is what we’ve designed,” Hefflefinger said. 
Hefflefinger added that the design for the jail facility was lauded by the Jail Commission for being forward thinking. 
Miller said he still felt the court should schedule the bond elections for the two facilities for the November election rather than the May election to allow time for any questions and concerns regarding the cost to the taxpayer to be addressed and so that it was not an election just for one item. 
Commissioner Kyle Matthews made a motion that the county hold a special election in May for only the jail facility at a cost not to exceed $30.9 million, with a repayment term not to exceed 20 years, which was seconded by Commissioner Ray Ashby. 
The final vote for the motion was 4 to 1, with all four Commissioners voting in favor and Miller voting against. 
Miller spoke with the Leader-Press on Wednesday and explained that his concerns for the new jail also included the county being able to staff the minimum of 17 additional new jailers that would be needed. 
Miller said that in conversations with Lampasas County Judge, he had learned that Lampasas County was struggling to hire staff their new jail facility. He added that he felt a market analysis was warranted. One of the County’s hiring competitors is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the county has had some employees leave to go work for the state prison system in the past, while also gaining some employees from TDCJ, Miller said. 
During last Friday’s Commissioners’ Court, the commissioners and the judge discussed the operating costs for the new jail facility. They decided that the county likely wouldn’t start with the maximum capacity amount of 250 inmates. With 200 inmates and the required staffing, the proposed new operating cost for the new jail had been estimated to total $3,490,101.83 at last Friday’s meeting. 
A document shared with the Leader-Press showed that the estimated cost for 200 total inmates and 17 additional jailers plus all associated expenses shows the total to be $3,577,701.83. For a fully staffed, 250-bed facility, the total cost for the jail, at capacity, would be $3,928,330.36. 
The county spent $1,083,809 on prisoner board alone in 2019-2020 and spent a total of $3,097,709.25 for the County Jail and associated costs. 
The debt service cost to the county would be approximately $1.9 million annually for 20 years, for a total cost not to exceed $30.9 million. 
During Friday’s meeting, Miller said that the additional costs for operating the jail would result in an approximate 2-cent increase in the tax rate. 
One cent of the tax rate generates about $278,000 in revenue for the county, Miller said. The two-cent increase would account for the additional revenue needed to operate the jail at close to full capacity. 
Paired with the 6.6 cents accounting for the debt service cost, the county would see an increase in property taxes by approximately 8.6 cents per $100 valuation. The county’s property tax rate for FY 2021 is $0.5311 per $100 valuation. Should the voters approve the bond election, another election would be required for voters to approve the tax rate increase to $0.6171 per $100 valuation. 

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