Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jones County pays for empty jail as detention bubble bursts

Using bonds approved by voters in 2005 for a new jail, officials in Jones County spent $25 million to construct a 1,127 bed detention facility on spec, hoping to house inmates on contract from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Now construction is complete, but TDCJ doesn't need the extra capacity and is under pressure to reduce spending instead of enter new contracts. So the facility sits empty while local taxpayers foot the bill for twenty times more jail than they need. Another Doomsday Deal gone predictably awry.

This is another instance where local officials thought they could build a jail for "free." The Abilene Reporter News said in August, "the original plan was to pay for the new county jail from revenue generated by the state facility." So now that that plan has fallen through, the county issued more debt to pay for the 96-bed county facility that was supposed to cost them nothing. As of November 1, the Jones County jail housed 24 total inmates, according to the Commission on Jail Standards.

County Judge Dale Spurgin implied that the county might default on the bonds if the state doesn't supply them with prisoners:
The facility was financed through the purchase of revenue bonds by investors, Spurgin said.

“They have bought those bonds knowing they are at risk,” Spurgin said.
One could also say the bonds were issued with the Commissioners Court knowing they were risking taxpayers' credit rating, as well. If the county were to default on the bonds, of course, it would harm the county's ability to incur indebtedness across the board for many years to come. That's not a realistic option. But what else is he going to say, except "We sold taxpayers a pig in a poke"?

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