Kerr County Commissioners signaled their intent Monday to seek voter approval in May for a $15 million bond issue to expand the county’s 192-bed jail, where periodic overcrowding has long been a problem.The bonds would "add about 1.75 cents per $100 to the county’s property tax rate" for twenty years assuming property values rise as much as projected over time, MacCormack reported, though one wonders how they can predict that if the jail's "actual cost won't be known until bids are sought." Regardless, as of December 1, the county reported to the Commission on Jail Standards that 129 of the county's 192 beds were filled, down from 160 on July 1, 2014.
Plans call for a 144-bed wing to be built on the current jail’s west side, in addition to expanding existing kitchen and laundry facilities, adding restrooms in the sheriff’s office lobby and creating a larger area for its communications staff.
The cost estimate of $14.8 million includes $12.5 million for construction, $990,000 in professional fees, $750,000 for contingencies and $400,000 for equipment and furniture.
If voters approve the project, Wayne Gondeck of DRG Architects said, its actual cost won’t be known until bids are sought next fall. The new jail could open in 2018.
Kerr County's incarceration rate is higher than the statewide average in an era of declining crime. It seems highly likely new jail construction could be avoided or at least delayed if local officials better used tools available to them, from judges issuing more personal bonds to prosecutors facilitating pretrial diversion to police officers and deputies issuing citations, as authorized under law, for certain low-level Class B misdemeanors.
Kerr County had a population of just more than 40,000 in 1995 and a little less than 50,000 in 2013, according to the census, growing by roughly a quarter over those two decades. By comparison, the Kerr County jail population more than doubled between August 1995 (69) and August 2015 (157). So jail population growth isn't a function of the county's population growth, it's caused by decisions mainly by local prosecutors and judges to use the jail more aggressively than in the past for pretrial detention. In 1995, upward pressure on the jail population came more from detaining convicted felons awaiting transfer to TDCJ than felons awaiting trial; by 2015 that dynamic had flipped. Pretrial detainees went from 25 to 69 percent of a twice-as-large jail population.
Jail construction, at its root, is rarely a conservative or liberal issue. Consider: Is expanded pretrial detention liberal or conservative? While people think of conservatives as "tough on crime," in a sense there's nothing more "Big Government" than a jail, which is an institution designed to exercise total control over people's lives. Meanwhile, expanded pretrial detention empowers the government in plea bargains. And unnecessary jail expansion is frequently a major driver of local tax hikes, as voters in McLennan County could well attest.
Once a jail is built, it can be expensive to staff the extra space, creating ongoing budget burdens beyond just paying back the debt. For that reason, jails can become controversial among taxpayers, even if every Sheriff seems to want to leave behind their name on a new wing when they go. One recalls in Tyler voters rejected four different jail bond proposals on three different ballots, with competing "Tea Party" groups taking different sides, before county officials received the nod for radically scaled back plans.
Who knows if that kind of opposition will arise in smaller Kerr County? At a minimum, Grits hopes locals subject the proposal to close scrutiny and reject any entrepreneurial scheme that assumes future contract revenues (no hint of that from the press coverage). But more than that, Kerr County voters should take the opportunity to insist that county commissioners and the sheriff, as well as local prosecutors and the judiciary, do all they can to reduce unnecessary jail use, supporting staff and programming for community supervision as ardently as brick and mortar jail cells. Arguably, as in Smith and Harris counties, perhaps the best way voters can convey that message is to reject jail bonds and demand more emphasis on diversion programming before approving new construction debt.