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Bartlett could see financial woes if jail closes

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Bartlett State Jail

The city of Bartlett could face financial difficulties if the Bartlett State Jail closes in September as proposed by the Texas Senate Finance Committee.

Closing the jail would save the state more than $24 million, according to the workgroup discussions held by the Senate while working on is biennium state budget. The state is hoping to cut $250 million from its budget.

Bartlett could lose about $528,000 annually in water and wastewater revenue because the jail brings in about $40,000 monthly, Bartlett City Attorney Elizabeth Elleson said.

A joint committee of the Senate and the Texas House will review the budget before it’s passed. If closed, Bartlett inmates would be moved to other jails, the committee report said.

Elleson recommended that the Bartlett City Council discuss the possible closing with state legislators and prepare for the closure by making an economic development plan.

The Sept. 1 proposed closing is an issue that would “put the city in a bind for a few months,” Mayor Pro tem Barbara Sandobal said. “We’ll have to learn how to get a lot of things done and do it without spending so much money,” she said.

The jail has become a significant contributor to Bartlett’s economy, Mayor James Grant said.

Closing the jail would reduce the demands on the city’s wastewater treatment plant, possibly reducing the need to build a new plant — a move that would save Bartlett thousands or possibly millions of dollars, Elleson said.

City water rates could rise

Officials said the city would be affected in several ways, including the need to raise water and wastewater rates.

The prison currently provides almost 45 percent of the city’s water and wastewater revenue every month, Grant said. The cost to provide the services is “relatively minimal,” he said. Grant said the expense is less than 10 percent of the total resources the city has.

The city’s economy would be hit, officials said. Sales tax collection will be reduced, and area residents who work at the jail might be reassigned or laid off. Local business owners are concerned about the sharp decline in revenue if the facility closes, Grant said.

Compliance issues

To bring Bartlett into compliance with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and keep from paying thousands of dollars in fines, the wastewater treatment plant needs very expensive repairs and sludge cleanup work. Some of the problems came from the state jail’s overload, but the problems won’t clear themselves up. The city will have to pay for the repairs and look for grants and loans to make that possible.

Grant said the city’s problem with TCEQ is really about the severe lack of maintenance and unqualified operators the city hired.

Invoices show that the city paid about $75,000 for water pumps for the state jail, and that, plus other expenses stemming from the jail, is money that the city won’t get back.

The actual loss to the city that it must absorb and try to find ways to recapture is actually about $675,000, Grant said.

Grant said that “the clock is still ticking and gaining momentum.”

“The Council majority’s idea that the facility will just be handed over to the city and instantly converted into a strip mall by year’s end is sheer fantasy,” Grant said.

Jail’s impact

State Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, was in the Legislature about 30 years ago when the state was building jails because there was a large shortage of beds, he said.

“I heard presentations from communities on why they wanted jails to be built there, and now the state is talking about closing jails,” Shine said.

Shine is aware that the Bartlett State Jail is a major industry for the small town but, on the other side of things, he said he hopes that means that recidivism is down and that law enforcement is very successful in eradicating many of the criminal problems.

Grant said his office is working with state legislators to try to get everyone to understand the city’s budgetary concerns and to identify options and possible alternatives to closing the facility, he said.

The 1,049-bed Bartlett jail, managed since 1995 by the Corrections Corp. of America, houses minimum to medium security inmates. Jack Garner is the current warden and took the position in November.

More than 200 people work at the jail and, in addition to the revenue provided through water and wastewater usage, the jail brings in about $166,000 in local spending for goods and services, according to the jail’s website.

The jail housed 856 offenders on Tuesday, Jason Clark, director of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said

If the jail closes, the inmates would be transferred to other units that have existing capacity, Clark said.

Regional effect

Shine, the District 55 representative, said he doesn’t know when the decision on the jail will be made. Although the jail is in Williamson County, a different district from the one Shine covers, he said closing it would affect Bell County because of the close proximity.

“Once it is revealed what the final decisions are, they will have a better idea of the impact,” Shine said. “The economic impact is a little too early to speculate.”

Sen. Charles Schwertner, who represents Williamson County and is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, wasn’t available Friday for comment.

Shine urged the community leaders to anticipate what that impact could be and discuss that with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and their representatives, as well as county officials. He also said that Bartlett’s leaders should look into future prospects for the facility.

“If they don’t put forth some effort, the last thing they want is to be completely blindsided if they do lose it (the jail),” Shine said.