Montgomery County voters should be fuming at commissioners’ jail actions

In 2006, Montgomery County Commissioners Court unanimously issued $45 million in revenue bonds (no voter approval necessary) to finance the clumsy scheme known as the Joe Corley Jail. Voters were told at the time that the 1,288-bed Joe Corley Jail, built next door to the existing Montgomery County Jail, would “initially house federal inmates” but eventually would meet the “future need for more bed space in the county jail.” The plan was that the Feds would pay the full cost of building the jail, so Montgomery County taxpayers eventually would get a jail free. How good can it get?

This year, the scheme began to unravel. After paying more than $17 million in principal and interest on the bonds, it was revealed that the bonds would likely lose their tax-free status in September due to the county’s inability to comply with a covenant it had made to the IRS. The Commissioners Court solution was to quickly sell the jail and repay the bonds.

The $65 million sale was concluded in June. Surprisingly, the only bid for the jail was $10 million higher than the minimum price established by Commissioners Court and the county realized a $22 million profit. While we don’t have the promised incremental jail capacity, at least we have funds available to build a jail without having to borrow more money. Wow! Did we get lucky or what?

It subsequently was revealed that as part of the sale of the jail, Commissioners Court agreed to support the buyer’s construction of another 1,500-bed jail adjacent to the Joe Corley Jail. So one (hopefully) unintended consequence of Commissioners Court’s free jail scheme is that the citizens of Montgomery County find themselves with a jail industry in our midst (the jails are located just inside Loop 336 in northeast Conroe). How many citizens of Montgomery County would have supported this type of “economic development” at that location? But there is another problem. Less than two months after the sale of the Joe Corley Jail, Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Gage declared the 1,253-bed Montgomery County Jail is at capacity and immediate expansion is required. The sheriff proposes building a one- to four-story addition just south of the county jail that would house 168 inmates per floor. The cost of the four-story option would approach the gains realized on the sale of the Joe Corley Jail, while the one-story option is estimated to cost about $9 million.

So the good news is that while we have a growing jail industry in our midst, we at least have the money to pay for the needed expansion of the county jail, right? Wrong. Our “fiscally conservative” commissioners could not wait to raid what the taxpayers had every reasonable right and expectation to consider “jail funds.” By this week, there are only $13 million left; the Commissioners Court having siphoned off $6 million to be divided equally among the four precincts and $3 million for employee retirement funds and leftover budget items from the 2013 fiscal year. To make matters worse, Commissioner Mike Meador (Precinct 1) is suggesting that none of the jail funds be used for jail construction; that the entire jail expansion be financed with certificates of obligation (another form of borrowing that evades voter approval). Meador says he prefers using the jail funds “like it was a rainy day fund.” Is it just me who hears the sound of slush?

In 2011, Montgomery County voters rejected a $200 million bond proposal because Commissioners Court failed to even attempt to justify its need. Since then, commissioners twice have thumbed their noses at the voters, raising a total of $30 million in 2012 using certificates of obligation. Now, at least one of them is proposing doing the same thing again, but this time after diverting available funds, our jail money, to some other purpose. Citizens of Montgomery County should be outraged.

This week, the Houston Chronicle reported that Harris County also needs a new jail. But Harris County Commissioners Court is expected to order a $70 million bond election to obtain funds for the facility. It is reprehensible when liberal Harris County’s Commissioners Court demonstrates more respect for its voters and their money than does the Commissioners Court in “conservative” Montgomery County.

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