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Hays County to appeal jail closure

Thursday, November 12, 2009 by John Davidson

Hays County Commissioners voted Tuesday to begin the process of appealing a decision by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that would have forced the Hays County Jail to shut down its kitchen by Nov. 20.


The county jail failed state inspections in April and September, and at a hearing on Nov. 5 the state commission ordered the county to close the kitchen and find an alternative, such as using a mobile kitchen, employing a catering service, or preparing food at the juvenile jail.


However, those measures would not only be too costly for taxpayers, argued county commissioners, but closing the kitchen would also throw the county’s RFP process and renovation plans for the jail into disarray.


The county has been working for months to fix myriad problems at the jail, including a leaking roof and HVAC system, rust on cell doors, and mold in the kitchen. Last week, commissioners approved a $293,000 contract to repair the roof, which should be completed by mid-December.


But the kitchen needs more extensive work, including a complete redesign and rebuild, which will take until February or March. According to Brenda Jenkins of Broaddus & Associates — the project-management firm working with the county — a request for a quote for the kitchen was issued on Tuesday.


The hearing before the state Commission on Jail Standards last week did not go the way county commissioners expected it would. “It took us by surprise,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe. “We thought we were going into a positive meeting.”


Part of the problem with the state commission hearing, according to Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley, was that all of the information on the county’s efforts to renovate the jail facility did not get to state commissioners in time for them to properly review it before the hearing.


“I believe we were dealt a poor hand last Thursday,” Conley said. “We have taken steps to correct the issues that they brought forward, allocating a million-and-a-half dollars at this point in time towards resolving this problem, and I don’t think that information was properly addressed during the hearing, which led the commission members to have a different perspective on what we’re doing in Hays County than the reality of what is actually happening on the ground.”


During Commissioners Court on Tuesday, Hays County attorney Mark Kennedy said the state commission’s ruling was “not remedial; it’s punitive,” because the timetable mandated for closing the kitchen would have required emergency measures. The cost of hiring a mobile kitchen unit, according to county jail staff, would be about $13,000 per month.


Kennedy told county commissioners he believes “there is a substantial reason for appeal.” Terry Julian, the former director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, agreed. Julian was in the audience Tuesday and came forward to tell county commissioners that they were “on safe ground by appealing.”


In addition to the appeal, the county is conducting an environmental assessment of the kitchen to determine the level of mold present in certain areas and is also asking the city of San Marcos to send a health inspector out to the jail as soon as possible.


In the meantime, the kitchen is still in use, despite the state commission’s ruling. If the county files its appeal in the coming weeks, as expected, the state commission will not hear the appeal until its next meeting in February. By then, say county commissioners, most of the jail repairs should be completed, including the kitchen renovations.


If the county loses its appeal, the next step is to take the matter before the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

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