Llano County commissioners approved a proposed budget Aug. 14 that included fully funding the county jail, which faced potential closure of inmate housing operations to help decrease county expenses. Photo from Llano County’s Facebook page
STAFF WRITER CONNIE SWINNEY
LLANO — Llano County commissioners approved a proposed budget Aug. 14 that included continued funding for Llano County Jail operations. This followed an outcry from local law enforcement, who rejected a consideration to house all inmates at the Burnet County Jail, officials said.
Llano County Judge Mary Cunningham and Precinct 1 Commissioner Peter Jones first discussed their idea in July with Sheriff Bill Blackburn to consider the process of “depopulating the jail.”
Jones said an estimated $2 million budget shortfall prompted the county’s research about the cost of housing inmates in county and out-of-county facilities as well as whether shuttering jail operations would be “feasible.”
“Is it cheaper for us to house them in Burnet than maintain a jail in Llano County?” Jones asked, using information from his unofficial study.
“Basically, our decision is we’re not going to (house all inmates out of county),” he said. “You can’t make a decision as big as this without it being fully vetted, and it’s not.”
Burnet County has a 587-bed facility, located about 30 miles from the 54-bed Llano County Jail.
“(The motivation) was looking at elements of our operations. How can you keep our services and, at the same time, reduce our cost,” Jones said. “You can go line by line and trim, but you can’t really come up with a big enough savings unless you do something drastic.”
The sheriff’s office budget — about $4 million — includes an approximate $1 million expense for jail operations.
The overall sheriff’s office budget reflects about 30 percent of the $15.3 million proposed county budget.
Llano County charges $40 per day to house inmates; Burnet County currently charges $35 per day but is slated to increase the cost to $40 in the upcoming budget.
“When you start putting those numbers in it, it cuts down on the savings,” Jones said.
Since the initial discussion, the sheriff rejected the idea of depopulating the local facility, citing the size of the county, fuel expenses, and a shifted burden on the sheriff’s office personnel and the court system.
“More research has to be done to find out if it is logistically and lawfully possible to hold court for Llano County inmates in Burnet. There’s not enough time in the day to handle court for both Llano and Burnet (counties) — all in Burnet County,” Blackburn said. “The district judges are an integral part of this. They should be contacted for their input first.”
Blackburn contended that shuttering jail housing operations could result in the county incurring more expenses such as:
• added fuel costs to transport arrestees to the Burnet facility;
• excess fees when medical expenses or guarded custody requirements are warranted for out-of-town appointments;
• and transport expenses to mental health facilities for special-needs inmates.
Other concerns included potential expanded responsibilities for courts and jail personnel and hindered bond considerations connected to Burnet County officials having little to no knowledge of Llano County arrestees’ backgrounds.
“The initial draft of the feasibility study addressed some of those issues. (Then), you start looking at some of these other issues,” Jones said.
To tighten the county’s belt, Jones said commissioners are instead mulling other cuts and considering a potential tax increase.
Steps toward balancing the budget could involve renegotiating county-wide EMS service contracts, freezing county personnel salaries, and syphoning from the reserve (county savings), he added.
Cunningham said commissioners will continue to grapple with critical expense issues prior to the 2017-18 budget approval.
“Our county is not growing like other counties. When you don’t have more revenues, you need to either consider ways to be more efficient, look for ways to cut, or raise the tax rate.
“I just want to do what the people want to do, which is to keep the jail open,” she added. “There were some other issues that were brought up. … It would have to be looked at fully.”
Blackburn believes county commissioners should reject any future plans for depopulating the jail.
“Running a jail is part of society,” Blackburn said. “It’s been going on for centuries, and to live in a civilized world, you’re going to have to have a jail.”
The final Llano County budget and tax rate is scheduled to be voted on Sept. 11.