Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Smith County commissioners fixated on jail building despite clear voter message

Hoping the third time will be the charm, this November Smith County voters for the third year running will get to vote on a jail bond proposal on the ballot that will boost the average property tax hit by $31.33 per year, from $381.11 to $412.44, the Tyler Morning Telegraph was told in an editorial board meeting pitching plans a new jail.

Three different jail proposals on two different ballots were overwhelmingly voted down in 2006 and 2007, but the commissioners court hopes a scaled down jail costing about $60 million will pass muster when more ambitious expansions failed before. Reports the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("Officials unveil scaled down jail facility for November ballot," July 30):
A new jail bond proposal on the November ballot will ask Smith County voters to approve a $59.6 million plan for 694 new beds in a jail tower adjacent to the existing downtown facility. Administrative offices would be built next to the new tower.

In a Tuesday meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph’seditorial board, Smith County officials presented the new plan, which calls for keeping both existing jail facilities —downtown and Low Risk. The plan is less than half the cost of the $125 million bond package voters rejected in 2007.

The new plan was put together by a committee that included Bobby Curtis, a leader of the group that opposed the 2007 bond proposition.

“We’ve worked on this for seven months, and I think it’s a great plan,” Curtis said. “I think the taxpayers will pass this. It’s a bare-bones plan. I think these tax dollars are well-spent.”

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, was also part of the committee that developed the plan.

“This is a common-sense approach that solves our jail problem,” Eltife said. “It’s looking to the future; we’re building only what we need now, but we have the ability to build another tower when needed. I think it’s very smart long-term planning.”
Whether it's smart long-term planning, a new jail will inevitably be a lot more expensive and require greater tax increases than this article portrays. The biggest costs from jail building over time aren't from the debt payments for brick and mortar but from additional staffing requirements for jail expansion.

To meet minimum state staffing standards of one guard per 48 inmates, 15 guards would be required on each shift for three shifts per day to supervise 694 jail inmates. So for a full week 63 officers would be needed to staff such a jail when it's full, and more would need to be hired in order to supervise those employees, cover absenteeism, etc.. Assume an extra 25% are needed for such purposes and Smith County could easily need as many as 80 new deputies in order to staff such a facility.

Conservatively estimating $30,000 salaries for 80 deputies and ignoring, recruitment, training, equipment, insurance, and other additional costs for the moment, just staffing a 694 inmate jail could cost $2.4 million per year, much more if any significant amount of that work is done using overtime.

While some prominent jail bond opponents from the last campaign have signed off on the new plan, I suspect more than a few voters will continue to oppose costly jail building when other options to reduce the jail population aren't being pursued. Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent recently told the commissioners court that “We cannot jail-build our way out of this problem.” For my part, until I see more details of the proposal, for now I agree with Judge Kent's assessment when she wrote about the new plan:
Insanity has been defined as "continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results." Smith County has ignored the needs of the justice system, judges, courts, and citizens and has since 1984 generally addressed jail overcrowding by building more jail bed space. I predict this new jail construction plan will cost millions of dollars, if approved by the voters, and once constructed the new jail will be overcrowded the first day it is opened. Sounds crazy to me.
In a sense, the jail overcrowding crisis has been a mitzvah for Smith County because it gave local pols incentives to pursue alternatives to incarceration that otherwise would not have been politically possible. But officials in my hometown have far from exhausted their options to reduce that burden beyond jail building, and they should do so before asking voters to sign off on more tax hikes for expanding the jail with no apparent end in sight.

RELATED: See a local Smith County blogger's reaction at

See prior Grits posts tracking Tyler jail bond debates

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