Smith County will spend more than a half-million dollars on upgrades to its county jail in response to concerns from the state commission that inspects it.
The Smith County Commissioners Court approved spending the $514,250 Tuesday at the recommendation of Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith, who said this is just a portion of upgrades that need to be made at the jail.
The new batch of upgrades will make improvements to eight inmate holding tanks in an area known as the old jail, separate from the portion of the building that opened in 2015.
The work will involve plumbing, lighting, painting and general construction in inmate bathrooms, common areas, sleeping areas and hallways. Two guard stations in the jail also will be renovated.
Smith brought the issue to the Commissioners Court earlier this month, saying that his staff have been working on these types of jail repairs for years, but a new inspector with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards wants the issues fixed more quickly.
The Commissioners Court responded by sending out a two-part request for bids, asking companies how much the most critical work would cost, and how much work on both the critical needs and longer-term needs would cost.
The lowest bid on the lower-cost option was $216,900, according to the county’s facilities manager, Ed Nichols. The lowest bid when including the additional work was $514,250, he said.
Among the differences, the lower-cost option would require the county to fix the plumbing and then reinstall existing toilets and other fixtures, Nichols said. The higher-cost option would upgrade them to stainless steel toilets and fixtures.
County Judge Nathaniel Moran said the county was able to move money around in funds to accommodate either request. He said either amount could be paid for in cash, even though it was not written into the current fiscal year budget.
Commissioner Cary Nix asked which upgrades listed were being required by the state inspector.
Nichols said the lower-cost plan would cover all the current requirements, but suggested the higher-cost plan.
“If we go with option B, if there’s anything else that (the inspector is) going to come across that he’s going to hit it with, we would already have it taken care of,” Nichols said. “It wouldn’t be a concern for us for quite some time.”
Nix asked if some of the additional work could be contracted out, such as to the crew of inmates that has been working with a county maintenance employee for the past few years to make upgrades at the jail.
“Commissioner Nix, the jail commission requires us to maintain minimum jail standards,” Smith replied. “I submit to you and the court, if we strive to maintain better standards than that, we’ll always meet the minimum standards.”
Smith said the crew could fix that problem, but there also are 24 side cells in the jail that need to be fixed in the next couple years.
“The jail commission hasn’t said that they have to be done yet, but the drains need to be fixed and we need to go in and completely redo,” he said. “I’d be glad to show those to y’all, and I think you’d all agree that they need to be redone.”
Commissioner Jeff Warr then asked Smith to notify the Commissioners Court more regularly about the status of the jail.
“This is a half-million dollars expense that we didn’t anticipate. You know, we had that money intended to go somewhere else in the county. We can pull it off because it’s a very critical type thing to do, but it’s not a $25,000 change to the budget. It’s a half-million dollars.”
Smith said: “I didn’t need the jail inspector to come tell me we need to do the work.”
“Yeah, but nobody told me,” Warr said.
Smith said: “We’ve been talking about it a long time.”
Commissioner Terry Phillips added: “I didn’t know about it either.”
Smith said they have a standing invitation to visit the jail whenever they want. He said the issue has been discussed repeatedly.
“This is only inmate areas,” Smith added. “We need to at some point do something about the officer areas that are getting pretty bad.”
In an interview after the meeting, Smith he now plans to prepare an in-depth report on what work needs to be done on the jail in the next several years to address the Commissioners Court’s questions.
Smith said there have been problems at the jail since the late 1980s. He said maintenance was deferred during a period of overcrowding when inmates were sent to other county jails. The cells were full, so they couldn’t be fixed.
“When we got the new jail open, they let us hire our own maintenance person and in doing so he used (inmate) labor to remediate most of those cells, and he did a great job, in a savings to the county of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Smith said.
“But you have one person and one crew,” he said. “You can’t catch up with what’s been going without anything being done to it for years and years.”
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