While salaries remain the largest cost driver, with healthcare costs trailing as a significant but distant second, increased costs for gasoline and water represent a significant and growing portion of operating budgets at prisons and jails. Just as average consumers struggle with rising utility costs, corrections facilities have been blindsided by the basic costs of keeping the water running, the lights on, and transporting prisoners and supplies.
While my family has been driving less in the face of $4 per gallon gas, that's not an option for county jails or the state prison system, which have base transportation needs that cannot be short-changed. That's particularly true of local law enforcement who perform neighborhood patrols and must transport defendants pretrial to and from the jail. The Austin Statesman reported today ("Travis targets fuel costs for 1200 vehicles," July 22) that:
Rising gasoline costs were also a big reason the Travis County Sheriff began giving officers discretion to use citations for low-level misdemeanors instead of driving violators to jail. The policy not only saves gas costs but keeps deputies on patrol and available to respond to more urgent matters.
"This discussion is happening in every county in Texas," said Elna Christopher, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties.
Travis County had budgeted about $1.5 million to fuel its 1,200 vehicles this year. But prices have risen so sharply that the county is having to find an additional $950,000 to keep its vehicles fueled through the fiscal year's end in September. The commissioners have already approved pulling about half of the needed money from the county's $3 million general reserve. The other half will probably come from cuts to individual departments.
To deal with next year's expected fuel costs, the commissioners will discuss a broad range of proposals.
"If you have as many employees and vehicles as we do," Biscoe said, "you can do some little things that can add up to big savings."
Christopher said ideas for finding those savings vary widely. Angelina County in East Texas, for example, may install video arraignment systems so that jail personnel don't have to drive prisoners to the courthouse.
The Travis County sheriff's department, which accounts for about 60 percent of county fuel use, is already putting changes in place that may be mimicked by other county departments. Sheriff Greg Hamilton hopes that steps such as cutting the amount of time vehicles spend idling and having more deputies patrol near their homes will add up to significant savings.
The sheriff's department also is putting more employees on a four-day workweek. Many patrol deputies have had 10-hour shifts for years, saving a day's worth of commuting in their patrol cars.
Moving more employees to a four-day week could allow some county buildings to be closed for an extra day, saving on utility costs, Christopher said. Ten-hour days could also allow some offices to stay open long enough for people to stop by before or after work, Biscoe said.
But he and Hamilton said they would not approve changes that made services more difficult to get.
TDCJ is considering changing its longstanding policy of transferring every prisoner to Huntsville before release because of high gas prices. They may soon shift either to releasing inmates directly from the unit where they're held or using "regional release centers" that would require less intra-prison driving time.
Meanwhile, from East Texas comes news of the Rusk County Commissioners Court seeking to raise water rates on TDCJ facilities in order to generate new revenue. According to the Jacksonville Daily Progress ("Rates to increase on TDCJ water use," July 21)
The city of Rusk offered discounted water and wastewater services as an incentive to get the state to build the Skyview and Hodge units in Rusk in the 1980s. The increase, according to city officials, brings the prisons’ rates closer to regular residential rates.I understand the impetus for raising rates, though it's pretty outrageous to hope that TDCJ will pay residential rates for water while large commercial users pay less. It's reasonable, though, to ask them to pay the going commercial rates. A lot of rural areas offered economic development packages hoping to attract prison units in the past that included subsidies on water, electricity, etc., that no longer make economic sense in a period of sagging property tax revenue. It wouldn't surprise me if we see more locals hoping to increase those rates now that the prisons have long since ceased to be viewed as economic boons.