County sees $1.9 million hike in jail costs

County sees $1.9 million hike in jail costs

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Jack Harwell Detention Center

The county’s cost to operate the Jack Harwell Detention Center is increasing from about $6.1 million per year to about $8 million per year.

McLennan County will pay $1.9 million more each year to house inmates at the Jack Harwell Detention Center after commissioners approved a change to their contract with LaSalle Corrections, the company that runs the jail.

Commissioners unanimously approved the agreement Tuesday. It will increase the county’s cost from about $6.1 million a year to about $8 million a year to house inmates at the Jack Harwell Detention Center.

The increase is a significant issue for the county’s budget, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said.

“Oh it’s going to hurt. There’s no doubt about it,” Jones said.

The court has had “quite a few and very good discussions” about the contract in private meetings since January, Jones said.

The county is headed in the right direction despite the hike in cost, he said. Jones said commissioners identified how much it would cost for the county to run the jail without LaSalle, but he declined to disclose that figure. Commissioners held that discussion in executive session, which is not open to the public.

The county running the jail is about the only other option, because the number of companies that operate jails is shrinking, Jones said. Commissioners still have a lot of work to do in discussing the jail’s future come budget time, Jones said. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

“It’s like everything else, the cost goes up on running county government,” County Judge Scott Felton said. “We have a large inmate population for the size of our county. It’s a burden on the taxpayers I know.”

The higher price is a result of increased labor costs and a shrinking industry, Felton said.

“The industry is a tough industry to be in,” Felton said. “There’s been a lot of contraction in the industry where a lot of these people that do the same thing LaSalle has done have gone out of business or consolidated.”

The jail payment comes out of the county’s general fund.

Jack Harwell Detention Center serves as an overflow jail for the McLennan County Jail, which is operated by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office. Inmates generally first go to the McLennan County Jail, also known as the Highway 6 Jail, Felton said. The Highway 6 Jail stays close to capacity, averaging 807 inmates on any given day, while Jack Harwell averages 337 county inmates per day, Felton said.

An addendum to the contract approved Tuesday requires the county to pay for a minimum of 335 inmates per day. If the county does not fill those beds, it still has to pay the difference, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said.

Previously, LaSalle allowed for flexibility on where the inmates came from. The more inmates brought to the jail from outside the county, the fewer the county had to fill, Chapman said. However, the threshold requirement dropped from a flexible 350 to a hard 335.

Jack Harwell Detention Center can hold 900 inmates. The company contracts with other counties and agencies to fill the remaining beds, Felton said.

LaSalle Corrections pays $3.5 million a year to pay off the county’s bonds used to build the jail. Felton said the facility should be paid off in 2020. The company then pays its personnel and operating costs. The jail must stay relatively full for the company to make a profit, Felton said.

If the county did not have its second jail, officials would have to regularly transport overflow inmates to another location, adding to county transportation and personnel costs, Felton said. The two jails are adjacent and separated only by a shared kitchen and laundry space.

The changes to the agreement approved Tuesday also reduce the term of the contract from three years before renewal to one year before renewal. The county and LaSalle also agreed to allow the contract to be terminated by either party for any reason as long as notice is given 90 days in advance.

Changes included reducing the daily inmate cost from about $50 to $38.50.

“It was just a mutual agreement,” Felton said about the changes. “In most of the contracts we have, we do have a way to get out or the other side to say, ‘Maybe this isn’t working for us.’ ”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said he does not think it would be possible at this time for the county to run the jail. Getting the number of employees necessary and prepping for that would take significant time, he said.

“We looked at a lot of options,” Snell said. “This was the least cost to the county at this time.”

The county initially hired LaSalle Corrections in 2013 to replace Community Education Centers Inc., the company that had run the jail since it opened in 2010. A $49 million bond package was issued in 2009 to finance construction of the Harwell Center.

LaSalle Corrections has operated correctional centers throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia since 1997, according to the company’s website. It manages 18 facilities.

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