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Hays County poised to call $188M bond election for new jail

Thursday, August 14, 2014 by Andy Sevilla

Hays County officials say a new jail is needed now, and they want to put the question to voters.

The jail, plus a communications facility and law enforcement center, could cost up to $188.5 million, and Hays County Commissioners seemed interested Tuesday in putting the issue up for a vote in November.

“If we’re going to try to push for a November ballot, I would feel strongly and feel confidently that we can articulate all the potential opportunities for all three facilities and ideas,” said Commissioner Will Conley at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Sheriff Gary Cutler told commissioners about $2 million was spent repairing the existing jail facility from 2005 to 2011. State regulators came close to shutting down the jail, but with upgrades such as roof and kitchen improvements and ridding the 25-year-old building of some corrosion, the facility met minimum standards.

Crowding is another issue.

“We have a jail facility that’s at capacity in which we are shipping out inmates,” Conley said.

Cutler said that in 2002, Hays County began outsourcing inmates to Guadalupe County. The practice stopped in 2003 and 2004 but restarted in 2005, continuing until Cutler took office in 2010.

Changes, such as a better system of getting suspects before a magistrate, ankle monitors for nonviolent offenders and work programs that offer inmates credit for good behavior, helped alleviate overpopulation.

Last month, outsourcing picked up again as the jail exceeded capacity, Cutler said. It costs $50 per day per inmate to ship an offender to Guadalupe County, he said. In the past few weeks, they have spent $19,000 on that practice.

According to a Broaddus and Associates presentation, a new jail could cost as much as $124 million.

The Public Safety Facilities Committee recommended the county pay for construction of a new jail with Certificates of Obligation, which do not require voter approval.

That funding mechanism is available to governing councils, most often to fund emergency projects.

Despite that recommendation, commissioners expressed a need to ask voters.

“I believe we need (the jail), but for that amount we need to take it to the voters,” said Commissioner Mark Jones.

Cutler told commissioners voters would likely not approve a bond to fund construction of a new jail, hinting at the option of using certificates.

Commissioner Ray Whisenant, however, said officials should educate the public on the benefit of a new facility. He said a bond election is the most honest and open way to ask the voters.

“If we can’t put our faith in our citizens, I don’t know where we’re going to place it,” he said.

Also proposed for bond election is a co-located communications facility and joint law enforcement center. That facility is expected to cost $45.5 million.

Commissioners are proposing a joint training center for the bond election as well. That facility would take the place of the existing jail and is expected to cost $13.3 million.

Demolition costs for the existing jail are estimated at $2.4 million, and officials say a vehicle storage facility should run about $3.2 million. Tuesday’s deliberations suggest the facilities would be proposed as separate bond items.

Commissioners have set a special meeting Monday to consider calling the bond election. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the Commissioners Court chambers.

Monday is the deadline for calling a bond election for the November ballot, according to Hays County legal counsel Mark Kennedy.

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