First jail public meeting held

Nolan County hosted its first of five public hearings Monday night in Roscoe to inform citizens about the needs of the county jail and some issues regarding repair to the outside of the courthouse.Sheriff David Warren was on hand to make a presentation about the current conditions of the Nolan County jail and why he said he believes the county needs to build a new jail. His presentation included a slide show of pictures of the inside of the jail.Warren said that although Nolan County’s population has decreased over the years, the inmate population has continued to increase, causing an issue of overcrowding inside a 54-bed jail that was built in 1977 as part of the Nolan County Courthouse.Nolan County currently contracts with Taylor, Runnels and Garza Counties to house prisoners when the jail is overcrowded. Warren said this will cost the county about $800,000 to $900,000 a year, which does not include cost for transportation and additional personnel for transporting.Warren commented on several inefficiencies of the jail, including a lack of female cells, lack of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance all over the jail, no holding cell and only one separation cell. Due to these inefficiencies, the jail cannot fill its 54 beds, Warren pointed out, and must house inmates elsewhere. They usually have over 60 inmates at any given time but due to “unique housing issues,” have to transport many of them elsewhere.The Texas Jail Commission has consistently suggested the county build a new jail since January 2000, Warren stated, in order to deal with two main variances – single cells that are too small and manually operated cell doors and locks.Warren showed with photographs how the proximity of the cells to one another and the open bars could be a security threat and could put jailers at risk for attack.Warren also presented what the possible cost to taxpayers would be if a new jail was constructed. Since the current jail is a split-level facility in the courthouse with booking on the first floor and the cells on the second floor, there is no way they can add onto the current facility. A new 96-bed facility would cost $10 to $11 million, which would require a 4 to 5-cent tax increase. Warren said this would cost the average taxpayer $2.07 extra per month in county taxes or an additional $24.75 a year. Warren stressed this figure was a liberal estimate.After Warren’s presentation, he fielded questions from members of the community who attended the meeting. About 40 to 50 people attended.No one in attendance questioned whether or not there was a need for a new jail. Questions revolved around the options for a new jail and what it would require. One question that was asked repeatedly was in regards to the possibility of a joint law enforcement center that would include the City of Sweetwater. Warren said this issue has been considered by the county and City of Sweetwater. Sweetwater city officials were present for the meeting and City Commissioner Jerod Peek responded that although they thought it was a good idea, the citizens of Sweetwater would end up being taxed twice as much for a new jail in this case. He explained that if the county built the jail and the city bought back a portion of it, citizens of Sweetwater would pay the county tax increase and would mostly likely have to pay an additional 5 cents to cover the city’s cost as well. “With the largest bloc of voters coming from Sweetwater, we thought it would be difficult to pass a bond election this way,” he said. However, he and Warren said the city’s involvement and other options involving the city were still under consideration and having 96 beds would allow for extra inmates if the city shared the jail.They also explained that although the city and county could share some staff, there would still be a need for separate city and county dispatchers since the city dispatcher fields 9-1-1 calls and the county dispatcher fields calls for other law enforcement agencies.Another citizen asked if the county would have to hire more jailers for a 96-bed facility. Warren said that they currently have enough jailers for a 96-bed facility since more jailers are required to staff a split-level jail. However, more dispatchers would be hired for a new jail.Another citizen asked if the county could do like Ludlum Measurements has done repeatedly and purchase an abandoned building and fix it up. Warren said that was a possibility, but in talking to law enforcement officials from other counties who had done this, he learned that most were disappointed with the outcome and that the savings were minimal due to what is required of turning a building into a maximum security jail.County Attorney Lisa Peterson answered a question in regards to a possible bond election. She said that there could not be a special election on this issue. If a bond election was held, it would be held in conjunction with a regular election, the next one being in November 2012.County Clerk Pat McGowan, who also attended the meeting, also answered questions in regards to a possible bond election. She stated that a certificate of obligation would cost less than a general obligation bond, which would require a bond election. A certificate of obligation is used for funding permanent capital improvements, and that debt service would come from property taxes but would not require an election.It was also asked if Nolan County could take in prisoners from other counties once a new jail is built. Warren stated that although that would most likely be considered, the state jail commission frowns upon constructing a jail in order to make a profit and would not be a priority.Warren also commented on locations that have been considered for the jail, including property off of F.M. 419, property near Bradford Lane and Highway 70, and property off of Avenger Field Road.Peterson stressed that all information provided at the meeting is currently speculation and estimates until county officials decide to move forward with constructing a new jail.Roscoe citizen Bruce McGlothlin stated that he foresaw a tax increase even without a new jail due to the possible increasing cost of housing and transporting inmates outside of Nolan County. He seemed to agree with Warren and said the county would be paying for this somehow in the future no matter what, so they may as well pay to build their own jail.Nolan County Commissioner Terry Willman also reported during Monday night's meeting that the county will be considering how best to repair damage to the outside of the courthouse. On Sept. 10, a granite panel fell onto the north entrance of the courthouse, causing damage to the sidewalk below and a granite planter. The panel and what was used to attach it had deteriorated and gave way. Upon closer examination to the courthouse's exterior, it was discovered that other panels had similar damage.Willman said this led the commissioners to the decision that all the granite panels had to be removed and weatherproofed since the concrete wall of the building was not waterproofed when constructed in 1977.  He said the cost of removal and weatherproofing will be about $900,000. He added that the courthouse was completed in 1977 at a rough cost of $3.4 million and was paid off in 1988. They have had engineers inspect the exterior following the damage, and it was determined the building was still structurally sound.Willman said the commission will now have to decide how best to repair the exterior and whether to put the granite back on or replace it with something else.Remaining public meetings:• Thursday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. at Maryneal Community Center. • Monday, Dec. 5, 7 p.m. at Nolan Community Center.• Tuesday, Dec. 6, 7 p.m. at Blackwell School .                     • Thursday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m. at Nolan County Coliseum Annex, Sweetwater.