This is another example of a county building excess jail capacity on a speculative basis hoping to profiteer off incarceration and produce revenue. Instead, perhaps predictably, at the first sign of economic downturn the strategy falls flat. Exacerbating the problem, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has stopped leasing beds from county jails because of its own successful efforts to keep the state prison population under control.
With commissioners still days away from knowing how much tax revenue they may expect, employee raises, new hires to handle growth and long-planned projects seemed set to wait until next year.
"We're held hostage, more or less, by the jail," County Judge Tom Head said.
The budget process began this year with a letter from Head to elected officials and other department bosses asking for no increases in their budget requests for the next year.
Jail costs, as well as the county's newly created medical examiner's office, became priorities over the last year, he said.
The Texas Tech Health Sciences Center informed Lubbock County last August that they would stop providing medical examiner services by September of this year. The county had already taken over much of that work - a new, $1.7 million department appeared for the next fiscal year.
That paled next to the more than $20 million dedicated to the jail, amounting to nearly a third of the county's general fund.
Commissioners had expected the facility to generate its own revenue from federal and out-of-county inmates at this point. The county instead shipped prisoners to other jails at a cost of $250,000 a month and collected $4,500 a day from the contractor for each day work continued on the building beyond its planned opening date.
"We thought that when we were at this point, this year, we would have been in there and not upside down as we are with out-of-county inmates," Commissioner Patti Jones said.
Lubbock isn't the only county whose jail eats up an overwhelming portion of the county budget, but commissioners' desire to make money off incarceration instead of just building to meet local needs has now put local taxpayers in a position of paying for an expensive albatross with little benefit to public safety.