EL Paso County Looks To Reduce Highest Jail Costs In The State

Special Report: EL Paso County Looks To Reduce Highest Jail Costs In The State

EL PASO, Texas - As County taxpayers are paying the most per capita in the State for the El Paso County jail system, Commissioners are exploring how to reduce costs.

Commissioners on Monday heard presentations from five companies who've submitted proposals to study what the most cost effective option is for the future of the downtown detention center. The study could suggest building a new downtown jail or remodeling/ reconfiguring the current one. "We don't know what footprint would be required. Where you would place that (new) facility. We don't know a forecast of what our detainee population will be in the next 5 or 10 years - those are all pieces of the puzzle that need to be figured out," said Commissioner Pat Abeln.


The 30-year old downtown jail's vertical design is costly and antiquated, according the Sheriff and Commissioners. It costs the County about $67 a day to house an inmate at the Montana annex in far east El Paso County, compared to $100 per day at the Downtown jail, according to Abeln.

"If we magically had the facility that we have on Montana, downtown, we would save $10 million a year."

The annex in far east El Paso was built with a more modern flat design that allows two detention officers per 96 inmates because the detention officers are able to see all the inmate units. The downtown jail's vertical design does not allow that. "We have to have an extra person on each floor, every shift - three times a day," said Sheriff Richard Wiles.

Abeln said one option could be to pay for the construction of a new jail, with a bond that could cost $130 million. Even if the County paid that off in annual payments of $10 million, the move could eventually save the County millions of dollars.  "We would be revenue neutral in year one and have the potential for very serious savings going forward into the future. You do not make money by operating an antiquated, inefficient facility and continue to fund it's maintenance," he said.


The 15 year old annex houses about 1,440 inmates while the older, downtown detention center houses about 1,000 detainees and together cost the County $71.1 million in fiscal year 2014. That translates to $86.05 a year, per capita, for El Paso County taxpayers -- the highest in the state.

Tarrant County's jail system also costs taxpayers there about $71 million but that County has a much higher population, with 1.8 million people compared to El Paso's population of 827,398. Taxpayers there spent $38.19 a year, per capita on their jail systems.

According to public data, the only other two counties where the jail system is more expensive than El Paso are Travis and Dallas Counties, with jail budgets of $72.8 million and $103 million. Also with much higher populations than El Paso, County taxpayers there still pay less per capita than El Paso taxpayers. In Travis County, residents paid $66 a year for the jails, while in Dallas, taxpayers are slated to pay $42 for their jail system. Commissioner Vince Perez's office has been compiling the data to explore why El Paso's jail system is so costly.

According to his calculation, El Paso's jails take up 23% of the County's $300 million budget.   


The cost of maintaining the two jails are a small piece of the puzzle compared to the cost of staffing the detention facilities.  In fact, about 85% of the jail system's budget comes from salaries. The salaries of detention officers are negotiated every few years by County Commissioners and the Sheriff's Employees Union. In the last contract, negotiated by the prior Commissioners Court, most jail detention officers got a guarantee of an 8% raise every year.

The raise consists of a 3% cost of living increase and if the detention officers have been employed fewer than 11 years, a 5% S.T.E.P. increase to entice them to keep working there. "It's an unsustainable path. We cannot keep raising taxes to continue to meet a growing budget. We have to identify how we can be more efficient in our processes," said Perez of the raises.

Commissioners Court in April hired the out-of-town firm, Denton-Navarro, to negotiate on the County's behalf for the Sheriff's Union Contract this year.

Wiles, who is not involved in the negotiations, said cutting the raises could hinder his recruiting efforts. "It's important to have good pay and benefits for employees involved in this kind of work because you have to make sure you have good quality people. We're able to pick the cream of the crop because of that."

Perez points out the raises cost the County an extra $3.7 million a year. That's more than a one-cent tax increase can cover. "If we were to raise taxes by one penny, that pays for $3.67 million,  but in this contract alone we already see increases for $3.7 million."

Wiles said he hopes wages stay competitive. "These are not easy jobs. You're locked in the cells with the prisoners for your whole shifts.  Most people in there are people who've made a mistake but there's some pretty nasty people who have to be in these facilities - cartel members, murderers, rapists."

The Sheriff added he could save the County money if he were allowed to privatize some of the jail services, like transportation from the annex to the downtown jail. The current contract currently does not allow any privatization of any services done by detention officers. Privatizing services may be a change in the new contract.


Aside from the staff pay, the County wants to examine how long an inmate stays in the jail on the taxpayers dime. from arrest to prosecution: the timeliness of police reports, the effectiveness of the d-a's office and how expeditious judges dockets are.

"How do we better identify individuals who don't pose a threat and can be released more quickly than being detained a few days? Managing the jail population and managing the way individuals move through our process is key," said Perez.

But both he and Wiles recognize it's a fragile and complex system.

"That is a balancing act. There's that constant struggle that no matter how minor, if you're the victim (the crime of your perpetrator) is major to you. We've had people in this jail for four years on capital murder cases before they go to trial because they're so complex and it just takes a while for the case to get there. The criminal justice system is very complex but that doesn't mean we can't come together and make efficiencies," said Wiles.

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