Completing a whirlwind tour by county officials throughout Nolan County, the 5th and final community information hearing was held last Thursday night at the Nolan County Coliseum Annex in Sweetwater.
Two important topics were covered in each of these community meetings with the first being necessary repairs to the exterior of the Nolan County Courthouse and the second covering the need for a new Nolan County Jail and Sheriff’s Office. While both matters are very important, this article addresses the second issue of the jail and sheriff’s office.
The community meetings began on Monday, November 28th in Roscoe and then circled through the county with meetings at Maryneal on Thursday evening, December 1st, Nolan on Monday, December 5th, Blackwell on Tuesday, December 6th and then the final in Sweetwater on Thursday, December 8th. All of the meetings were held at 7:00PM and were official posted meetings. The County Judge, County Commissioner’s Court, Sheriff, County Clerk and County Attorney attended the meetings to answer questions and present information.
Last Thursday night’s meeting was attended by a good cross section of Nolan County citizens, as well as several professionals that were obviously there in response to the jail issue. Most notably, several officials with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards attended the meeting at the coliseum annex. The actual head of the state regulatory commission, Executive Director Adan Munoz, was present along with Assistant Director Brandon Wood, Facility Planner James Short, and Jail Inspector Jimmy Barton. Executive Director Munoz arrived at the Nolan County Jail & Sheriff’s Office earlier in the afternoon that day, along with Wood and Short, and the three men personally toured the existing facility with Nolan County Sheriff David Warren and Nolan County Judge Tim Fambrough. Also attending Thursday night’s meeting was Mr. Vince Viaille with Specialized Public Finance, Inc., a firm that the county has recently selected as a financial advisor, and architects from four different architectural firms. It was explained that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) first advised Nolan County to begin planning for a new jail as far back as January of 2000 when overcrowded conditions precipitated the TCJS to mandate that Nolan County begin holding its excess prisoners elsewhere.
“While citizens are understandably concerned with property taxes and tax rates, the feedback on the jail issue has been mostly positive.” according to Nolan County Sheriff David Warren. “Nolan County citizens understand, now better than ever before, the need for a new jail and sheriff’s offices.” said Sheriff Warren. “The need for a new jail and sheriff’s offices is something that began 12 years ago and although most citizens are just now being educated on this, the issue has been discussed at length for many years with the County Judge and Commissioner’s Court. I am pleased that the Commissioner’s Court has decided to move forward on this issue by having these community meetings. We are trying to get the facts and information into the hands of the citizens and let them help by telling the County Judge and Commissioners what they feel should be done.” stated Warren. “I am very proud of the citizens that came out in the cold to attend these evening meetings and they asked a lot of really good questions. I want to express my sincere appreciation to all that have attended. This is certainly a big issue and folks deserve to know all of the facts and information that we (county officials) can possibly provide.” the Sheriff stated.
In Sheriff Warren’s presentation, he laid out the overcrowding issue with the current facility as well as a multitude of other facility problems and deficiencies that could ultimately result in potential de-certification and closure of the current jail. When an interested local Nolan County citizen directly asked TCJS Director Munoz how long Nolan County actually had before reaching such a serious point, Mr. Munoz firmly responded “Not long.” Munoz went on to explain the process of de-certification and fielded a number of questions from citizens that seemed to confirm the necessity of taking action right away on securing a new facility. Citizen input and questions seemed to be quite understanding of the definite need for the new jail and sheriff’s offices and many questions covered topics such as size and capacity of a new facility, staffing, location, approximate cost and whether it might be a joint law enforcement center with the offices for the Sweetwater Police Department included in the overall facility. There was also discussion on the fact that interest rates are very low right now and construction costs are relatively flat. Both of these factors would help keep the cost down on a new facility and are part of the reason many counties have either built new facilities recently or are in the process of doing so right now.
Mr. Vince Viaille addressed the audience with information on bond issues and noted that the nearest time that a “bond election” could be held would be November of 2012 due to a recent state law change specifying that Texas counties can no longer hold bond elections in May, except in odd-numbered years. Viaille went on to explain the “C.O.” process or “certificates of obligation” that result in just as favorable an interest rate for the county and can be completed in 60-90 days. In the C.O. process, the county commissioner’s court thoroughly publicizes their intent to utilize certificates of obligation for a particular capital improvement project(s) and then, unless a minimum of five percent of the registered voters in Nolan County sign a valid petition to force a bond election, the commissioner’s court can hold a vote on the certificates of obligation and, if approved, move forward in the financing process with financial advisors and bond counsel assisting the county so that all proper legal requirements are met, including ultimate approval by the state attorney general’s office. With utilizing C.O.’s, and an expedited financing and construction process, at best Nolan County would still be two years away from actually getting into a new jail and sheriff’s office. “Most citizens that heard all of the alternatives, and took time to speak with me after these presentations, felt that the certificates of obligation would likely be the best solution so that a decision on the issue would not be delayed another year until November of 2012 with the county potentially facing possible closure of the existing facility which would result in extraordinary housing costs for having to house all of the prisoners out of the county.” Warren explained.
Sheriff Warren reinforced the fact that all county officials work for the citizens of Nolan County and that people really need to communicate their feelings and desires to the county commissioner’s court, made up of the four county commissioners and the county judge, and tell them what they should do in response to this important issue. As a budgetary matter, the commissioner’s court is the body that has the authority to make the decision to proceed. Sheriff Warren stated that, “The Commissioners and Judge got to hear from a number of Nolan County citizens during these five meetings and I hope that even more will express their opinion so that the Commissioner’s Court can proceed, feeling as though they have a good working knowledge of the will of the people in this matter.” “I certainly know that it (jail & sheriff’s office) is a large investment and feel very confident now that people have the information to know that it is a definite need and not just a want.” Warren added. “If anyone has any questions at all regarding this issue, they should certainly feel free to call me (Sheriff David Warren), Nolan County Judge Tim Fambrough or any of the Nolan County Commissioners.” Sheriff Warren concluded.