By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON Construction for the new Bell County District Courts building is under way and is on schedule for completion, but plans for additional space for the county jail has stalled.
We should be building a new jail addition right now because it takes two years to complete construction, said County Judge Jon Burrows.
A new jail addition would have been covered in two bond issues that were defeated by voters. A $46 million bond was voted down in a May 15, 2004, election. Those funds would have covered a jail and a district court complex, not including county courts or the county clerks office.
That particular bonds tax impact would have been at 1 cent per $100 property valuation and would have been 60 percent less than the 2.5 cents per $100 from the countys original jail-courts proposal.
The original plan, a $61.1 million complex which would have included a jail, district court, county courts, and county offices, was defeated in a Sept. 13, 2004, bond election.
The current plan that is under way will cost $27 million in limited tax notes not to exceed $30 million to fund the new district courts building and renovation of the current district courthouse.
Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith said the current jail complex is 20 years old and has lasted longer than was expected.
In the original plan (for a criminal district complex), 450-500 beds were included for the jail, he said.
The current plan does not include a jail. The sheriff said that as of now there are no plans or decision to move forward with a jail expansion.
We have delayed going ahead with a jail because we didnt want to increase taxes, Burrows said.
But the decision of the voters to not approve the original bond proposals could have financial consequences in the near future.
The jail capacity is 709, but the real capability of the jail is not 709, Burrows said.
The (current) jail population is 639, he said. Thats about where the max ought to be.
The jail needs breathing room of 10 percent. The reasons? Male and females cant be jailed together and inmates need to be classified according to their crime.
For the past couple of years, we have exceeded 90 percent of our capacity, and we have exceeded total capacity several times, Smith said.
In November 2004, the number of inmates was 740.
Bell County Commissioner Richard Cortese said the county is trying to process cases faster to move them more quickly.
There is a good cooperation with the defense bar and prosecution to meet the needs of the public and to keep them safe, he said.
Burrows said the jail is in the maximum range now, but the number will go up.
Well have to start sending inmates to other counties to house prisoners at a cost of $50 (each) per day, he said. We have to take action or the costs will be overwhelming to the taxpayers of Bell County.
Burrows said if 100 prisoners are housed in other counties at a cost of $50 per day for 365 days, it will amount to more than $1.8 million a year, which would come out to about 2.5 cents on the tax rate the amount of the original bond issue.
The delay will eventually cost the project more, Burrows said. It will be about $9 million more than if we had been able to go ahead with the project.
If the bond issue had been approved, a new jail would have been almost done by now and the county would have been able to lease space to other counties, bringing in revenue, Burrows said.
As it stands now, there will be a period of time when two things will be happening at once.
We will be paying inmates to go to other counties while paying to expand the facility, Burrows stated.
Because of the countys growth, a couple of years ago the old jail was reopened to help with overcrowding. The current jail was built 20 years ago when the countys population was 100,000 less than what it is now, Burrows said.
Between 1990 and 2000, there was a 24 percent increase in population. In 2000, the population was over 237,000 and in the past five years the population has jumped to 255,000.
As the county grows, the potential for higher number (inmates) is there, Cortese said. We have to add space.
At the state level, the prisons are overcrowded as well. This has a direct effect on the counties.
Burrows said that typically the state picks up inmates destined for the penitentiary within 30 days of when they are paper ready, but they have up to 45 days.
We anticipate that they will be using that additional 15 days, he said.
Holding a prisoner 15 days longer than the county is used to is an extra out-of-pocket expense of about $40 per day to maintain someone in jail, Burrows said.
Burrows expressed some concern about some of the proposals at the state level to deal with overcrowding.
Thursday the state House of Representatives approved a bill that would cap probation terms at five years, instead of 10 years, for nonviolent, third-degree felonies such as stalking, making a terroristic threat, retaliation, escape, and possession or promotion of child pornography. The Senate is considering the bill.
Our issues are growth and a need for the infrastructure to keep up with that growth, Burrows said.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org