Johnson County commissioners are going forward with plans to build a $22 million jail, but voters won’t get a chance to weigh in on the decision to borrow money for the project.
County Judge Roger Harmon, who wanted to call a bond election so taxpayers could decide what to do about the aging, outdated facility, said he was “very disappointed” by last week’s 3-2 vote in favor of building the new jail without calling the election. Harmon said he told commissioners that there are too many uncertainties, and that he didn’t think it was wise to spend the money.
“I do believe that we need to renovate part of our jail, but I don’t believe that we can see down the road far enough to build a new jail,” he said.
At the jail, built in 1989, bars are rusting in maximum-security cells; toilets and showers are falling apart; and the kitchen, designed to serve 300 inmates, serves meals to around 800 per day.
The sally port, where prisoners are brought in for booking, can handle only one vehicle at a time.
Harmon said the uncertainties that concern him stem from contracts that are up for renewal and a report from the jail standards commission that said the county doesn’t need a new jail until 2030. The county contracts with Immigration Customs Enforcement to house detainees who commit crimes such as theft while they are in the United States illegally. The contract ends in March, and Harmon said ICE is negotiating with Alvarado to build a detention facility.
The county also contracts with Lasalle Southwest Corrections, a company that manages the jail, and that contract ends in August.
Alvarado City Manager Clint Davis confirmed that the city is negotiating with ICE but said there is no contract yet. He expects to find out if Alvarado is chosen by the end of the year.
Davis said ICE has talked about building a 700-bed ”processing center” in Alvarado with a courtroom for people whose immigration status is in question. But the center could also house detainees with criminal offenses, he said.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Stringer, who voted in favor of building the new jail, said the Texas Jail Standards Commission has said that the facility meets the necessary requirements for now but could be decertified if the problems aren’t fixed.
Last year, Sheriff Bob Alford met with state officials, who said the county has put a Band-Aid on the problem for too long.
“This is a warning. I don’t understand why we would risk decertification,” Stringer said.
The county is growing rapidly because of the Chisholm Trail Parkway and Interstate 35, and the population is expected to double to 300,000 by 2050, he said.
Stringer said he favors having voters decide on projects such as swimming pools or parks, but the jail is not a discretionary item. He said construction could start in about a year.
“We know our jail is full, and we are expecting the numbers to increase. It’s our job to prepare for that growth,” he said.
The county is working with architect Kenneth Burns, who submitted plans that include building a 64,715-square-foot jail to house 212 inmates. The new building, with an estimated cost of $17.7 million, would include more space for prisoners, a kitchen, a laundry and the sally port.
Burns also recommended major renovations to the building where maximum-security inmates are housed at an estimated cost of at $4.4 million, bringing the total estimated cost to $22.1 million.
Burns wrote that the construction would have to be done in phases, with the new building first.
Stringer said it is also important to borrow money while interest rates are low. The county also has an excellent credit rating, he said.
But Harmon said it is his responsibility to protect taxpayers.
“I support renovations, but I don’t support a new jail,” Harmon said.
“Good decisions come with good information,” he said.