When I started this column over 20 years ago, it was with the promise to myself that it would not become involved in local politics or personal opinions thereon. I am keeping that promise, but, in the interest of full disclosure, would add some facts to the debate over the issuance of certificates of obligation for the courthouse repairs and the construction of the new jail.
At this time, the two projects are intertwined. Counties are prohibited by law from going to the bank and borrowing money; they must sell bonds. This is a very complex process, whether done by Certificates of Obligation (which do not require an election) or by General Obligation Bonds (which require that the county also incur the cost of an election). The financiers and attorneys who help with this are paid more for the first five million than for subsequent ones. Rather than pay that steep initial fee twice, the Commissioners Court decided to put the two projects into one set of bonds. This was explained at the five public hearings, and the consensus of the voters present was that they wanted the bonds floated in the least expensive manner possible, which meant not holding an election.
About the time the courthouse was completed, the Texas Jail Standards Commission was created and given the responsibility for setting standards for county jails. They were also given the authority to close jails which do not reach their standards. Nolan County’s jail was completed shortly before the standards were written, and has not ever been wholly in compliance. “Grandfathering” is not applied in cases such as this, although the Commission has approved variances for over 30 years. Requirements have become more stringent with time, and the construction of our jail is such that it cannot be altered without tearing out that half of the courthouse. Several members of the commission were present at the hearing held in Sweetwater; their comment to the assembly was that they are ready to close our facility.
Closing the jail would be a considerable cost to the county. Inmates would have to be transported to other jails for housing, and brought back to Sweetwater for hearings. Appointed attorneys would have to travel to where ever the inmates are, at our cost. In addition to the per day cost of housing our inmates elsewhere, additional deputies and vehicles would be needed for the transportation. Without a new jail, these costs would continue, with no end in sight.
This isn’t about frills for the inmates, it is about being in compliance with regulations, being efficient with tax dollars, and avoiding the lawsuits which are encouraged by a substandard facility. Our current jail is a multilevel facility, which requires more staff, the cells are smaller than required by regulations, and the corridors between them are too narrow for safety. The Commissioners examined several options, including trying to use existing buildings in the county, and various parcels of land around the area. The site would need to be near major roads, since the Sheriff’s Office is included, and, to keep costs as low as possible, to be relatively level, easily cleared, and with good access to utilities. The Commissioners did not want to use their power of eminent domain and condemn land; rather, they looked for land which was for sale. The parcel they selected had been for sale over a year without interest from any group, and was owned by a non-profit, so was not on the property tax rolls – another plus, as the purchase of this land did not remove it from them.
The Texas Open Meetings Act has very few exceptions. One of them, for obvious reasons, is the discussion of purchase of land. The Commissioners acted in open court to select one of their members to negotiate for land, He was named in the minutes, and in the concurrent news reports; any person could have approached him for information. The only closed meeting in this process was the meeting in which details of the purchase were discussed. When the decision was made, it was in open court, and listed on the posted agenda.
The last months have seen more interest in and people present at Commissioners Court meetings. When asked if they have something to say, or a comment, there has been silence. Twice, a request has been made to be placed on the agenda, and each time that request has been rescinded by the requestor. At this point, Nolan County owns the land. Surveys have been done, and the ground studies required before building have been started. Prospective Construction Managers (a whole OTHER article) have seen the site and based their prices on what they have seen. Debate was available, at the appropriate time; questions were not raised, and so the Court proceeded.
If sufficient signatures are obtained, the vote will be whether or not to float the bonds; neither building or not building a jail, its location nor façade choices for the courthouse will appear on the ballot. Texas law allows for the public to insist on voting before the bonds are floated; it does not provide other options to finance remediation of the courthouse or bringing our housing of prisoners into compliance with the Commission’s regulations.
I wish nothing but the best for the WASP Museum, of which I am a charter member. I also understand the needs of the County, and believe that the two can peacefully coexist – and perhaps benefit each other.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .