By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON The argument over whether the county should build a new jail addition ended Monday morning.
The Bell County commissioners unanimously voted to build a 630-bed facility next to the new district courthouse on Loop 121 to alleviate jail overcrowding at the current facility in downtown Belton.
"We need to deal with jail overcrowding," Sheriff Dan Smith said. "It's becoming a public safety issue, and we need to do what's necessary to protect our community."
The new jail addition will cost approximately $42 million at 3.5 cents on the tax rate per $100 property valuation.
"This is not the cheapest, but it is the cheapest we have now," County Judge Jon Burrows said. "The cheapest would have been in 2003."
Three years ago, voters turned down a bond election that would have funded a larger district courts building than the one that is almost finished, a new jail addition and county courts for $61 million. The tax impact would have been 2.5 cents per $100 property valuation for all three sections of the project.
Putting the bond election to a vote was not required, because the project was declared in the public's best interest. This time around since it was not required, the commissioners chose not to roll the dice.
The new district courthouse ended up costing 1 cent on the rate.
When it is all said and done, the county will end up spending 2 cents more to do two-thirds of what the original 2.5-cent project would have done.
Each month the project is delayed, construction costs escalate $315,000, Burrows said.
"We've had a population increase of over 100,000 since the (current) jail was built," Commissioner Tim Brown said. "We will see that kind of growth again and to not prepare would be irresponsible."
At Bell County's current growth rate, it is estimated that a 630-bed facility will give the county about 20 years of breathing room before the issue will need to be addressed again.
Burrows said that in February 2000, a couple of months after he first took office, he was approached by the sheriff about the impending jail overcrowding. All projections at that time gave the county six years before it would have to start leasing jail space from other counties.
On April 3, true to predictions, commissioners approved a contract with Milam County to begin housing a minimum of 25 inmates at its new jail facility that opened last week. The cost of leasing space is $45 per inmate per day, but that figure is more like $50 when the cost of transportation and personnel is factored in.
On top of that cost will be the cost of inflated construction rates.
The recent high point was 698 inmates more than a week ago. The jail capacity is 706. On Oct. 1, 2004, the jail population was 759 the highest to date.
The entire court system in the county is doing everything it can to keep the population down, including not taking Class C misdemeanors.
The punishment for a Class C misdemeanor is generally a fine.
"If (the offender) agrees to the fine and then refuses to pay it, you have to arrest them to get their attention," Commissioner Richard Cortese said. "The whole process is stymied."
Belton City Manager Sam Listi attended the commissioners' meeting to voice his support for the facility.
"For almost two years now, inadequate Bell County Jail space has affected Belton's ability to perform its full range of law enforcement functions," Listi stated in a letter to Burrows. "This is not just a Belton problem, but a Bell County problem."
In September 2004, the Belton Police Department was notified by the sheriff's department that the BPD had to make some adjustments in its procedures because the jail didn't have enough space, a memo from Chief Mike Sleeth stated.
"The jail would only take Class C subjects when they posed a threat to officers or the community and if they were intoxicated in a manner that they were a danger to themselves or others," the memo stated.
Sleeth stated that additional jail space will not only enhance the department's operations on a daily basis, but it will have a direct impact on the safety and well-being of residents.
Jail overcrowding is a problem that is happening across the state.
"It's not a unique situation" to Bell County, Commissioner John Fisher said.
In Smith County, with a population half that of Bell County, 220 inmates are being housed each day in other counties. A bond election will take place there on May 3 to build a $83 million jail.
"We need to go forward with the jail project," Commissioner Eddie Lange urged. "It makes sense financially to get the most bang for your buck."
When the first bond election failed, a 43-member task force of Bell County residents was convened to study the problem.
The task force found that the county's population would continue to grow substantially for the next 20 years and that the issue of a new jail needed to be addressed immediately.
During the recent primary elections, one of the questions brought up was why the commissioners decided to build a new district courts building first instead of a jail addition.
The current district court's elevators, stairs, restrooms and air handlers needed to be brought up to code by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation by Sept. 1, 2005. Failure to comply with these codes would have resulted in penalties up to $5,000 a day. The county was under a deadline that couldn't be ignored.
That point was reiterated when in 2004, after the second bond election failed, the current district courthouse caught fire.
O.L. Petty, a former Belton councilmember, told the commissioners Monday that when he was on the council in the 1950s, Belton had three police officers.
"Never thought I would see in my life time when we would need a jail this big," Petty said. "What we're doing here today is following the advice of the task force."
Contact Michelle Guffey at email@example.com