Coryell County commissioners discuss justice center, hear from county facility committee
By BRITTANY FHOLER
The Coryell County Commissioners Court met for a special workshop meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18 to discuss the design costs and associated issues related to the potential construction of a Justice Center building.
Commissioners heard a summary of recommendations from the Facility Advisory Committee, to which commissioners and County Judge Roger Miller had appointed members several months ago. The committee includes five members, with the commissioners and judge each appointing a member. Those members are Copperas Cove city councilmember Fred Chavez, Nancy Botkin, Bob Brown, Lynn Massingill, and Matt Dossey.
During the workshop meeting’s Open Forum, Coryell County resident Donna Taylor vented her frustration over the fact that the county was not doing anything about a new, much needed jail facility and was instead going to spend “millions of federal government dollars/COVID money” on the Justice Center. She asked why this facility was not put to the voters like the jail had been.
“In my opinion, if this court uses the COVID money to build a new Justice Center, it will be built on a lie,” Taylor said. “If any new building should be built using COVID money, it should be for a new jail, where COVID is a bigger problem. Shame on anyone on this court if you vote for this, ignoring the bigger issue of the jail…Here's a novel idea – build a building that houses both entities. Don't most who are arrested have to go to the J.P.s first anyway?”
In his brief update prior to the committee’s update, Jeff Heffelfinger, president of Southwest Architects, Inc., shared that the cost of construction for government buildings is seeing a minimum 10 percent increase across the board as well as increased wait times for materials.
“Pre-planning is important. Pre-construction is very important, and I want the court to understand that if you ever desire to fall into that next phase, when and if that happens, we're going to have to be aggressive in the pre-construction phase of this project to get it done in a realistic amount of time at the cost that Butler-Cohen has come back to us with,” Heffelfinger said.
Heffelfinger shared that with another project he is working on, he has paid 60 percent of the money on the cost of materials in just six months to have the materials on-site or in insured and bonded warehouses to ensure a 12-month construction schedule could still be maintained and to not result in additional costs.
Matt Dossey shared the Facility Advisory Committee’s recommendations with the commissioners.
“Our job and our task that was assigned to us was to do an honest evaluation of what we have currently, what we need, and which direction that we as a committee felt would be the best direction for the county, and not considering who the sheriff is, who the commissioners are, or who the judge is,” Dossey said.
Dossey added that he disagreed with the statement made by Taylor earlier in the meeting that the current jail facility is “crumbling.”
“Is it too small for what we need? Yes, okay, but it is still a functioning facility, and it's not a crumbling facility,” Dossey said. “I want to get that straight. I don't know who started that or where it came from. That's not true. Do we have a crumbling J.P. [Justice of the Peace] building? Absolutely. That's a fact. Do we have a DPS building that their housed in that's not very good? Absolutely. I mean, that's a fact. I've walked through those buildings. I've toured those facilities, all of us have, and those are some things that are facts.”
Dossey said he did agree that jail beds are something that are needed, as a county, overall.
The committee had discovered in its research that the county has outgrown its jail facility and needs to look into other options, he added.
The committee’s recommendation, which was also submitted to the Commissioners Court in writing, would address immediate needs and long-term needs.
“We believe there's some immediate things that need to be addressed, and then we need to look at some things four, five, six years down the road for planning and then hopefully completion within 10,” Dossey said. “That gives us a short-term, immediate-type goal to achieve as a county. That gives us a midterm planning and assessment of where we’re at, and then 10-year plan to completion. I think within 10 years, we can have our county in a situation for the next 40 years, and I think that's the goal. I believe, as leaders, elected officials, this committee, that was always the goal - to get us in a position, not tomorrow, but in the in the near future, and then in the intermediate and in the long term, 10 years to get us for the next 40, 50 years so that we don't keep kicking a can down the road as we know politicians like to do.”
The committee looked into adding on the building that currently houses the jail and Sheriff’s Office in downtown Gatesville. The purpose was to look and try to find an answer to a common question asked during the bond election of whether it could be possible to just add on to the existing jail building.
Unfortunately, Dossey said, it was determined not to be cost effective.
“I think the estimates that Mr. Heffelfinger gave us are actually low,” Dossey said. “After talking to some guys about moving a 12-inch waterline, after talking to them about moving an eight-inch water line, after talking to them about moving a sewer line that’s gravity flow - I mean, you're talking about destroying downtown.”
He also mentioned the fact that the county would need to purchase two additional buildings and deal with closing a city street and much more.
“I'm telling you from a common-sense logistical standpoint, monetary looking at it, factually, it does not work to add on and renovate the existing jail facility to accommodate what we need for everything,” Dossey said.
Dossey said it is the committee’s opinion that the county does not need to abandon its existing jail.
“We believe that we utilize the existing facility for either a female jail facility, or people who are waiting to be sentenced to TDCJ, and now we're the ones outsourcing the beds to create a revenue stream coming into the county,” Dossey said. “We also believe, and our recommendation is, to go out on F.M. 929 and build a 160-bed facility, and that rate, that gives us at that point, whenever you look at the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, what they recommended by the year 2040. They recommended that we have 240 beds. Our 90 down here, 160 out there- I’m not a genius, but that gives us our 250 beds.”
Dossey explained that this facility could be added on to, with a laundry space, cafeteria or food service space, and more.
The committee also discussed the staffing issue that the county would likely face in terms of finding enough jailers.
“We talked about things of this nature, but if we are saving $1.8 million and outsourcing revenue going out, or expenditures going out for transport and housing inmates out of county, we can also create that stream of revenue coming in by housing other counties’ inmates, and we can utilize some of the existing positions we have,” Dossey said. “We don't have to have as much transport positions, and we can utilize those positions and other aspects and cut down on some of the staffing costs.”
The next recommendation from the committee was to build a building for the Justices of the Peace (J.P.), Precincts 3 and 4 in Gatesville. They are currently housed at 508 East Leon St. in Gatesville.
Dossey explained that the county needed to use its existing funds (referring to the $1.7 million in construction) to build a building that would house the J.P.s, the constables, DPS troopers, the Texas Game Wardens and the J.P. court, calling it an immediate need.
With this building, the county could then get rid of some of the buildings it currently occupies that are crumbling or use them to expand the current jail, if it is necessary or add a central dispatch building, if needed.
“As far as aesthetically pleasing, we believe that the new jail being off F.M. 929 being away from downtown maybe doesn't have to be the Taj Mahal, so to speak,” Dossey said. “We can save a little cost to the taxpayers and build a little bit more simple of a building.”
Dossey added that it needs to be durable and structurally sound, but not aesthetically pleasing the way the proposed J.P. building downtown would need to be.
“After talking with our district attorneys, our County's Attorney, county judge, all of our commissioners, there is a great concern with the government efficiencies- and safety is a concern,” Dossey said. “You know, the efficiencies of offices communicating with one another.”
Dossey said that after the first two recommendations are done, then the county should construct a government building that houses the 52nd District Court and the 440th District Court as well as the County Court at Law, the County Attorney and the District Attorney and tax office. At some point, then, the Commissioners Court could move back into the courthouse, he added.
Commissioner Kyle Matthews said he agreed with the committee’s recommendations.
“Now with just talk about the government building- I've never been for it from the get-go because it is a want right now, not a need,” Matthews said. “We do have a need for the two J.P.s, getting them out of that old jail, and I also believe that we need to remove DPS from that old building and wipe it off the map.”
DPS offers its officers in exchange for use of the building, Matthews said.
“We get a lot of law enforcement for a little bit of money, so I still think they need to be in a nice facility,” Matthews added. “Of course, unfortunately we have not any rain lately, but if we do get rain, go over there and look in the west bay and you'll see a waterfall inside the building.”
Matthews said he believed the county could build a smaller footprint with the opportunity to expand it later.
Dossey added that he felt it is important that the county move on making the facility changes happen.
“I think that whenever we make these recommendations, whatever the time frame- maybe 10 years is too soon,” Dossey said. “Maybe that's overreaching and maybe being aspiring to do a little too much too soon, or whatever, but I see that's the direction our county needs to be working toward, and like I've told you all before, and I still believe this, I believe this first step is a huge step , but I believe we got to take a step. If we do not take a step at this point, I think what we're setting ourselves up for is not taking a step for a long time.”
Later on in the discussion, Coy Latham, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 4, echoed the need to move forward with doing something. He said he had been in office since before all but one of the Commissioners was in office, referring to Commissioner Daren Moore.
“This can- there’s no can left,” Latham said. “It’s wore off. I want everybody to I hope take heed of what our building committee has said. It makes lots of good sense, very good sense. Common sense. I just pray- we’ve been moved out of that building six or seven times since I’ve been there. We haven’t stepped foot out of it yet…I’ll live wherever y’all put us. That’s why y’all get paid the big bucks or y’all are supposed to have the brains, but I just pray y’all come together, everybody can get on the same page. We’ve got to have a plan.”
Latham added that this wouldn’t have cost so much to do if the prior Commissioner Courts from years ago had come together with a plan.
“This burden, I know it’s on your shoulders, but we’re beyond stepping up, and it’s time to step up,” Latham said.