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County seeks vendors to manage Jack Harwell jail

County seeks vendors to manage Jack Harwell jail

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McLennan County commissioners voted without discussion Tuesday to seek proposals from new vendors to manage the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco.

New Jersey-based Community Education Centers Inc. has run the 816-bed jail since it opened in 2010, but the contract’s initial term ends June 13.

The company has yet to say whether it wants to extend the contract, so the county needed to gauge interest from other vendors, County Judge Scott Felton said.

“We’re hoping we get a lot of interest in that regard,” he said, adding that more than one vendor has expressed interest.

CEC spokesman Christopher Greeder said the company does not comment on ongoing or future public procurements.

The 5-0 vote allows the county to receive bids and review them before the contract expires, Felton said.

It will not prevent the county from working with CEC to extend the existing agreement, he said.

Commissioner Ben Perry said he thinks the vendor market will be competitive because the Harwell center, which recently passed an annual inspection, remains a “state-of-the-art” facility. But he doesn’t think the county can get a better deal than the $45.50 daily inmate housing fee it pays under the current agreement.

“If you look at the standard in the industry right now, I think you would probably be a very wishful thinker if you thought we could get a lower contract,” Perry said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a better contract.”

The RFP also seeks a vendor to manage the vacant 329-bed downtown jail, which CEC also 
oversees.

The commissioners court closed the downtown jail in 2010 and transferred inmates to the new, $49 million Harwell center, built by the McLennan County Public Facility Corp. The county formed the corporation to issue revenue bonds without creating a county debt liability.

Bond debt

Revenue from housing inmates at the Harwell center, including overflow inmates from the neighboring McLennan County Jail, helps to repay the bond debt.

Commissioners have criticized CEC for relying too much on county inmates to fill beds at the Harwell center, especially after the county’s inmate population started to rise in late 2011.

The county could spend up to $6 million on overflow inmate housing in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, or twice the $3 million budget, according to county auditor projections.

The Harwell center also houses federal inmates, and CEC is working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to possibly house more.

Commissioners voted last week to start sending some overflow inmates to a CEC-run facility in Polk County, if needed, to accommodate more federal detainees at the Harwell center.

Commissioner Kelly Snell has pushed to reopen the downtown jail and move overflow inmates back there, but a majority of the court has yet to agree.

The county spent more than $1.2 million to renovate the downtown jail, but plans to reopen it this year stalled after commissioners learned the facility could need costly repairs to a smoke evacuation system to pass a state inspection.

Fewer inmates

The number of county inmates at the Harwell center has dropped to an average of about 250 to 300 a day, down from a high of more than 400 early this year, Felton said.

County officials attribute the drop to several factors, including docket changes initiated by district court judges and the growth of an electronic monitoring program that keeps some low-risk offenders out of jail.

Felton wants to better manage the jail population by forming a criminal justice working group with representatives of the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office, the jails and other county officials.

He proposed the group during a work session Tuesday, saying counties such as Dallas and Tarrant found success with the model.

Felton would lead the group, which would meet regularly to study ways to reduce the number of inmates and the cost of housing and feeding them — or at least to understand why the numbers go up or down, Felton said.

“This is a significant part of the overall expense side of our budget,” he said. “We need to put all the attention to it that we possibly can.”

Snell and Perry expressed support for the idea, but no vote was taken.

“The sooner the better,” Perry said. “We’ve seen positive signs within our budget. I think we’re moving in the right direction, but we can’t be lulled to sleep.”

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In other commisioners court action

Also Tuesday, the McLennan County Commissioners Court:

* Heard a report from County Auditor Stan Chambers that sales tax revenues are up so far this year compared with fiscal year 2012. Receipts could exceed expectations by more than $1 million by the end of the fiscal year, which would help bolster the county’s fund balance, Chambers said.

* Formally approved a land swap with the Waco Independent School District to allow the Extraco Events Center to add a new arena as part of a $1.5 million 
renovation of an existing stall barn. The school board is scheduled to take up the issue Thursday.

Under the deal, the county would acquire land between the stall barn and Paul Tyson Field that the school district uses as a practice soccer field, creating room for the barn expansion. In exchange, the county agreed to give the school district a comparable property on the other side of Paul Tyson Field, off North 44th Street.

Center officials have agreed to fund a new practice soccer field — including fencing, lighting, irrigation and grass — at the site the school district would acquire.

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