County discusses jail expansion

Ector County officials held a public meeting Tuesday to discuss a $25 million expansion to the county jail to help alleviate overcrowding issues and reduce costs associated with housing inmates in other jails across the state.
After years of trying to figure out how to deal with overcrowding without having to expand, former Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson told Ector County Commissioners now is the time to build. Donaldson said the county has tried things like pre-trial court and a special bonding program, but there is still no relief in sight.
“We’ve done everything we can do and it didn’t work,” Donaldson said.
Sheriff Mike Griffis said the population of Ector County is expected to increase, and with it, the population of inmates in the jail will increase.
“It may be tough to staff it part of the time, but that’s when you come in, you pay overtime. I’d rather pay our people here to work at the jail and work overtime than give it to some other county,” Donaldson said.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons said he is not against the expansion, but he wants to make sure the county is looking at all the factors involved before making a decision that would put the county $25 million in debt.
“I just want to make sure we go into it with our eyes open and realize it’s not just the debt, the loan payment we’re talking about, we do have other costs that are going to increase, too. So we need to make sure we are aware of those before we go through it and not be surprised afterwards,” Simmons said. “There’s a cost benefit analysis that needs to be studied.”
Simmons said there have been issues with staffing in the past and while it may not be an issue now, it could be when the economy picks back up and someone would rather make more money in the oil field than stay at the jail.
“Two years ago they were 17 jailers down and having to authorize overtime just to meet standards by keeping somebody there even if they were on a second shift. With this proposed expansion it calls for 59 more jailers than what we currently have,” he said.
"I don’t want to build a big building and then still have to send people to other counties because we don’t have enough jailers.”
In addition to the cost of hiring additional employees and overhead costs, there will also need to be ongoing maintenance costs associated with the expansion, Simmons said.
The $25 million expansion would include two jail pods capable of housing maximum-level offenders and one pod to hold medium-level offenders. Expansions to storage, laundry, kitchen and medical areas were included, as well.
Retired Ector County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Gary Fields said constructing pods built for maximum-level offenders will give the sheriff’s office and existing detention center more versatility for the number of inmates coming in.
Fields remembered a time when they had no space to put max-level offenders and would have to put someone on the floor because they had no other choice.
Ector County currently spends thousands of dollars per day to house inmates in other county jails across the state, not including the cost of transportation. Prices are not fixed for the housing and care of those inmates, either, and will likely increase.
Griffis said there are also several county jails canceling state contracts because the federal government pays more for inmates.
“If all those other jails are going for that bigger money, we’re going to be in a bind,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Griffis said there were 594 people in the Ector County jail and 218 being held in other counties. The jail only has 667 beds. If approved, the expansion would provide 1,147 beds.
County Judge Ron Eckert said since the county has a very small amount of money in reserves, the expansion could not be paid for out of pocket. The county would pursue the issuance of public debt in the form of Certificates of Obligation to finance the expansion.
The Commissioners Court would have to pass a resolution to issue the debt and at that time the public would be given notice and be provided an opportunity to petition. Five percent of registered voters would have to sign to petition in order for the county to either stop the process all together or hold an election for the certificate of obligation.