New Coryell County jail stalled as commissioners, judge vote down issuing resolution

By BRITTANY FHOLER 

Cove Leader-Press 

 

The Coryell County Commissioners Court held a special meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss and vote on a resolution authorizing publication of a notice of intention to issue certificates of obligation for a new county jail. 

The commissioners previously voted to move forward with the jail project and a government building, selecting Certificates of Obligation as the funding source for the jail and opting to send the government building to the voters in May 2021 in a General Obligation Bond election. 

The commissioners voted 3 to 2 against approving the resolution to publish the notice, which means they will not issue Certificates of Obligation to fund a new jail.  

The proposed 80,000-square-foot, 250-bed jail facility has an estimated cost of $29.4 million. 

Paying for the new facility means county taxpayers would see their property taxes increase by approximately 14 cents per $100 valuation. Of that 14-cent increase, 7.8 cents per $100 would go toward jail maintenance and operating costs, while the debt portion would be 6.6 cents per $100. 

The county’s current tax rate that requires voter approval if exceeding it is 57.4 cents. The county’s fiscal year 2021 tax rate is 53.11 cents per $100. With the 14-cent increase, the fiscal year 2022 tax rate would be 67.51 cents per $100 valuation, which would automatically trigger an election for the tax rate. 

Members of the community were given the opportunity to provide public input during the meeting. 

Steve Buckner spoke first and said he was flabbergasted that the commissioners were even considering the jail and its $29 million price tag. Buckner mentioned different costs of housing inmates in other counties, from $52 to $60 per day. 

“I know we need to plan for the future but right now, what’s working is working, especially in Coryell County,” Buckner said. “What you’re talking about doing, adding $30 million is going to increase our tax rate by 36 percent. I mean, 2020 is not the year to do this, to add a 36 percent burden to everybody.”

Buckner said that property taxes on everybody are up around anywhere from 100 to 200 percent over the last 10 years. 

“The Coryell County property taxes, what people are paying, have outpaced inflation by 100 percent already,” Buckner said. “In 2020, we’ve already had the [Gatesville ISD] add a nine- to 10-cent increase into theirs. Couple that with y’all, at some point, you’re going to kill the golden goose.”

Buckner asked that the commissioners consider “pumping the brakes” on the jail for now and possibly even consider a lower tax increase in increments for a jail fund. 

Another resident, J.D. Dixon, said that he also thought it was smart to house inmates in other counties. More importantly, Dixon said he felt that the citizens of Coryell County ought to have a say in funding the jail. 

Dixon pointed out that of three of his properties, the property taxes have increased by 78 percent, 92 percent and 63 percent in the last 10 years. 

“I think you’re going to have a very big backlash when this all comes out,” Dixon said. “People need to know what it’s going to cost them when this is done. I think some people, when you say 14 cents, some people think it’s just going to cost them 14 cents.” 

Another resident, Leon Barnett, said he didn’t think that the majority of citizens would vote for a nearly $30 million bond. 

“Even though y’all are elected officials and y’all are trusted in the community, I think it’s wrong for a small group of people to put this kind of burden on the taxpayers based upon information that happened 10 years ago,” he added. 

Copperas Cove resident William Abel said he thought the county “blew it” on the jail 10 years ago and pointed out how the cost has risen as the project has been pushed down the line. 

“The longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost,” Abel said. 

Barnett asked whether the jail facility needed to be “state of the art.” 

Commissioner Kyle Matthews pointed out that it isn’t as simple as another county jail having space for Coryell County inmates. 

“There are empty beds in the state of Texas,” Matthews said. “Until a jail, a Commissioners’ Court and a Sheriff say that we can occupy those beds, we cannot occupy those beds. We cannot just take an inmate over there and say we’re over our capacity.”

Matthews added that when he spoke with the Lampasas County Sheriff eight months ago, he was informed that all of their beds were contracted out. 

Matthews also clarified that the county’s agreements with other counties can limit the type of inmate sent over, such as with Milam County. 

“We’re under their obligation to send them what they want, and they’re wanting the church kids, but the problem is [we’ve got] 92 beds, and I don’t think any of them go to church except for to get out of their cell,” Matthews said. 

Matthews also pointed out that the county’s cost for housing inmates out of county has increased in the past decade. As of the end of November, Coryell County had 163 inmates. 

In 2014, the county spent $500,000, and by 2016, that amount had gone down to $425,000. In 2017, the amount increased to $700,000 and increased to $875,000 in 2018 and again to $925,000 in 2019. In 2020, the amount had surpassed $1 million. 

A resident referred to as Mr. Fernandez commented via Zoom about how the Sheriff’s office and the current county jail would not be able to keep up with future growth. 

“Our S.O. cannot function while handcuffed to our neighboring counties,” he wrote. 

Coryell County currently has contracts with Limestone, McLennan, Milam and Burnet Counties.   Limestone and McLennan, even pre-COVID-19, haven’t taken inmates in months, according to Sheriff Scott Williams. Burnet County will only accept every two weeks and only if it’s the “perfect inmate.”   Milam County will take inmates but is currently having to house their own inmates out of county to accommodate the contract, Williams said. 

Williams also touched on comments about the facility being state of the art for the inmate.

“That’s absolutely incorrect,” Williams said. “It is state of the art for the citizens of Coryell County and my staff that has to house some of these bad actors.”

The question of asking for the architect to come up with a way of building a jail for $10 million less was brought up. 

County Attorney Brandon Belt pointed out that the architect did not come up with the amount but rather the Construction Manager At-Risk did based off the architect’s design. 

“I don’t see much use in trying to fool anybody into thinking that there’s a chance that we could build a 250- or 260-bed jail for $20 million,” Belt said. “I don’t think that’s realistic.”

When it came time to vote on the resolution, Commissioners Ray Ashby and Kyle Matthews voted in favor, while Commissioners Don Jones and Daren Moore and Judge Roger Miller voted against. With this vote, the commissioners will have to discuss bringing the jail project to the people to vote on as a General Obligation Bond. The Commissioners will have to take action to schedule the election by February 12, 2021 during a regularly scheduled meeting in order to have the election in May. 

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