Liberty County is ending its efforts to find a new jail contractor after a recent round of proposals from jail contractors resulted in only one bid at a rate $2.5 million per year higher than the current contractor. Instead of seeking other potential bidders, the County is moving forward with plans for the county jail to once again be operated by the sheriff’s office.
“It’s just too expensive. It’s a price tag that we just couldn’t digest. We are going to take over operation of the jail by the County, which entails the jail being managed by the Sheriff and the Sheriff’s Office with a jail administrator in place,” said County Judge Jay Knight.
The current jail contractor – GEO – has been looking to exit Liberty County for a while, so the company did not submit a proposal.
On Monday, commissioners met to approve the creation of a position of jail warden. Knight says the County is hiring Raye Carnes as jail warden. She previously was warden over the jail for four years, working under Community Education Centers (CEC) and GEO, the previous and current jail contractors, respectively.
Carnes will be tasked with working with Commissioners Court and Sheriff Bobby Rader as the County transitions the jail from a corporate to county operation. Her knowledge of what the County must do to be in compliance with the State Jail Commission is a plus, Knight said.
“She is someone who is experienced in the operation of our jail. She knows what is necessary on a daily basis to offer a safe and secure operation of the jail,” Knight said.
The Liberty County Jail is a 280-bed unit, which is a disadvantage for getting competitive bids, according to the judge.
“Most of these jail contractors are looking for 500-bed units and we just aren’t that. More and more jail operators are not interested in running a small county jail. The margin of profit just isn’t there for them and we, as a county, are trying to operate it without a profit,” Knight said.
While the County strives to be fiscally responsible, taking over the jail will add about $3 million to the sheriff’s office budget for payroll and benefits alone for the 74 employees. Those costs are currently being covered by the jail contractor.
Knight said that the jail and sheriff’s office will consume about 30 percent of the overall budget for the County. The County’s budget this year, which will be approved some time in September, is projected to be around $40 million.
“Even though it’s going to cost us more to take over the operation, it’s going to be a savings from what we would have spent with a jail contractor,” Knight said. “I feel we can operate the jail at a significant savings, perhaps saving more than $1.5 million. We can, in turn, use those savings to put back into the sheriff’s office.”
GEO’s last day with Liberty County is Sept. 30. The County will take over on Oct. 1. Knight said the goal is to have a smooth transition, so there is a lot of work that must be done between now and the start date. Among the challenges to work out will be an agreement with GEO for some of the jail’s fixed assets, such as kitchen equipment, vans and uniforms.
Sheriff Bobby Rader says that GEO has agreed to leave its uniforms at no cost to the County.
“There are some unknowns we have to consider, such as medical services in-house. We also don’t know how much the other fixed assets are going to cost the County,” Rader said. “I know the County can do a better job of running the jail, but I don’t know about the costs yet.”
Knight said the sheriff, jail warden and commissioners will continue working together to ensure a smooth transition.
“We call it teamwork and everyone is working on the same team,” said Knight. “Everyone understands that the savings realized by this move will be an advantage to the sheriff’s office in the long run. It could mean better equipment and better pay for employees. I have all the faith in the world in the Sheriff’s abilities to handle the jail and his department.”
The jail has been in operation since 1992.
“Hopefully we can make it last a few more years before we have to build a new facility. With Liberty County growing by leaps and bounds, there will eventually be a need for a bigger facility in the years to come,” Rader said.