Wednesday, July 09, 2008
By Tommy Witherspoon
Tribune-Herald staff writer
While McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis said Tuesday that he is disappointed that only one company returned proposals for the potential privatization of the county jail system, jailers who fear for their jobs remain concerned that the idea is being pursued at all.
For the third week in a row, about 50 McLennan County Sheriff’s Office employees jammed the commissioners court to express their displeasure with the county for considering turning all or part of the jail system over to a private, for-profit detention corporation.
The officers reinforced their ranks Tuesday with leaders from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, with 16,500 members representing 100 local police unions; Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit group based in Charlotte, N.C., whose goal is to stop the proliferation of private detention centers; and the American Civil Liberties Union.
While the county sent out requests for proposals to 14 companies across the country, only Community Education Centers, which is based in West Caldwell, N.J., but has a regional office in Waco, submitted a proposal packet.
CEC, which bought CiviGenics in May 2007, has had a nine-year relationship with McLennan County, which Lewis has described in the past as a “sweetheart deal.”
However, the county knows any new deal with CEC won’t be as sweet after CEC’s contract to lease the downtown McLennan County Detention Center on Columbus Avenue from the county expires Oct. 1.
In the past, CEC has paid the county around $800,000 to $1 million a year to house federal or immigration prisoners in a contract with the federal government. However, since the county’s Highway 6 jail has been out of state compliance because of overcrowding and staffing concerns, the county has had to fall back on the CEC-run facility downtown to hold its overflow prisoners.
That has drastically reduced the county’s windfall from its lease agreement — by about $600,000 a year — by having to pay CEC to house the prisoners.
In the new proposal opened Tuesday, CEC has reduced the amount it proposes to pay the county for housing federal inmates and increased the amount it plans to charge the county to house its
Other proposals in the bid call for CEC to pay the county $41.90 per inmate per day to operate and manage the Highway 6 jail. CEC also agrees to design, finance, build, manage and operate a new, 1,000-bed facility on county land adjacent to the Highway 6 jail.
Lewis said it could take a month to analyze the 150-page proposal and to make a decision about how to proceed.
Ken Witt, president of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Officers Association, has called for Sheriff Larry Lynch to stop the discussions about privatizing jail operations, citing the Local Government Code that says the county can’t enter into such a contract without the sheriff’s authorization.
Lynch, who is on vacation this week, did not attend Tuesday’s meeting or respond to Witt’s letter.
“If you are the sheriff,” Witt said, “and you are looking at one of the greatest decisions in law enforcement here in this county — it is going to affect employees, the citizens, all of the local agencies, every one of us in this county — I would think that if I was the leader and it was my sole decision, I would be there for my employees.
“Even if I did want a private jail, I would be here to let them know where I stand so that everybody could make their preparations if they need to find another job or start fighting for their job. I am very disappointed.”
Opponents of privatization say private companies pay less, hire less-qualified and poorly trained employees, have a history of inmate abuse and consider only the bottom line when operating the jails.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Mashek said he is sorry the county waited until it got into an “emergency situation” with jail overcrowding to start acting. He said he favors a proposal suggested by Witt that the county take back the downtown jail to ease overcrowding and give county officials more time to consider all their options.
“I have been asking questions about jail overcrowding in the budget process for the past two years, and nobody seemed to want to do anything,” Mashek said.
Charles Hutyra, who will face Lynch in November as the Democratic nominee for sheriff, said he also believes the county should take over the downtown jail to give the county more operating room.
“That private stuff, I am not going to go with it,” Hutyra said. “I am going to keep them jailers. They are pushing that because they know I am against it. I am not for privatization and not for them guys losing their jobs and some private company taking over. That is what is wrong with this darn country. Everybody is in it for the money and not taking care of people.”
George Vose, CEC senior vice president for operations, said his company is mindful of its employees and their families, adding that CEC tries to “be fair” and competitive in terms of salary and benefits.
He said he was unaware that his company submitted the only proposal on Tuesday, declining to speculate if competing companies might perceive that CEC is too firmly entrenched in McLennan County because of its past relationship here.
“We have good relationships in all of the counties that we do business in,” he said. “We work closely with the commissioners and the public officials, sheriffs and the like, everywhere we operate. The last thing we want to do is to get in the middle of any controversy. Our job today was to make a proposal.”
Mike Langley, marketing director for the Durrant Group of Denver, one of 14 companies the county invited to submit a proposal, said the project was a little more complex than his company was prepared to take on at this time.
“It just didn’t fit what we are looking to do,” he said. “They were looking for an architect, a general contractor, a financier and a correctional operator. We just couldn’t get all four parts together, so we decided not to pursue it.”