Sunday, December 26, 2010

Life On The Installment Plan - Failure To Communicate?

You don't want to admire them chains, John-Boy. They ain't medals. You get
them put on for makin' mistakes...And if you make a really bad mistake,
then you got to deal with the Man...and he is one rough old boy.
- Cool Hand Luke

Caught between a rock and a hard place, McLennan County Commissioners Court faces a tough decision on Tuesday.

A contract amendment to an arrangement with CEC (Civigenics),Inc., to operate the downtown Courthouse Annex Jail is set to expire on Friday.

The arrangement calls for the New Jersey-based corporation to house federal prisoners in the 326-bed facility at a rate of $45 per day, but the Court called the deal off in June in favor of transferring the population to the Jack Harwell Detention Center on Highway 6. It's a publicly financed and privately operated jail that holds 816 prisoners. County Commissioners arranged financing through an issue of revenue bonds which did not require voter approval.

Under the terms of the amendment, the corporation may waive some $30,000 per month in user fees for the empty jail. It's making it hard on a cash-strapped county government that is obligated to make debt service payments on a sinking fund of $49.9 million in revenue bond obligations used to construct the new privately operated jail. The court did not count on having to do without something like $70,000 per month in anticipated revenue from this source. The previous contract amendment has already waived a projected additional $40,000 per month in revenue – a total of $70,000.

It's all straightforward enough until you stop to consider that the downtown jail deal is a keystone of other arrangements, the details of which are murky and in most cases utterly opaque, seemingly by design.

Repeated Texas Open Records Act requests for information have led to dead ends when it comes to learning from exactly where funds are disbursed – or paid.

There is a constant level of tension between people who are seeking the facts and the custodians of the record.

For instance, in seeking details of how officials satisfy the debt payments, County Auditor Steve Moore, who is slated to retire on January 31, explained that the accounting scheme has been described by bond attorney Herb Bristow as a “waterfall” in which a contingency fund – Fund 196 – is filled with funds fresh from U.S. Bank & Trust, the bond trustee. As trustee, the bank receives all payments from CEC, makes disbursements to the bond holders, then sends the money to McLennan County, which pays its obligations, then parcels what's left over to the contractor.

As the contingency fund overflows, the water trickles down to subordinate accounts, much like the hydrology of a mountain stream cascading off of multiple cliffs in some exotic setting.

It appears the stream has run dry.

So far, CEC is in arrears for invoices payable in October from its various clients such as the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, some Texas counties and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for almost a half million dollars, according to corporate officials. But that won't satisfy a revenue requirement of $3.7 million in interest owed on the bonds.

Under the bond agreement, the county is obligated to come up with the money from any source available, including taxpayer funds – or default on the bond issue and run the risk of ruining its tax-free municipal bond rating.
Then there is the matter of the Sheriff's supplemental payment of up to $1,000 per month from the downtown jail contract – a stipend which is payable subject to and contingent upon receipt of money from the contract – which has been suspended up until Friday. The problem is that it's impossible to determine if any such payments have been made, and from what source.

Said County Auditor Steve Moore after a particularly ugly scene with one of his assistants, a woman who vehemently demanded payment in cash for copies of records without first allowing inspection, as prescribed by law.

Mr. Moore apologized, saying, “My staff sometimes reacts like pit bulls.”

It's a cultural thing. The system thrives on secretive arrangements and transactions which take place in the dark. For more than a century and a half, outsiders are considered in the dark. Anyone who tells a stranger to the system anything about the county's workings is to be blackballed for life.

It does get on people's nerves.

“How many tape recorders do you fellows have going?” Mr. Moore asked The Legendary and associate R.S. Gates.

When told there were electronic recording devices in operation, Mr. Moore gave us a quizzical look and The Legendary proposed we should go off the record.

I returned the next day seeking details of the transaction and if and when it has been paid, or will be – and how. Mr. Moore acting through an intermediary of a very frustrated receptionist, said I would have to file a new Open Records Act information request, something subject to a new interpretation from a Texas Attorney General who has already proclaimed such arrangements illegal under the state's Government Code. Quite simply, a salaried constitutional officer such as a Sheriff is prohibited from taking supplemental salary payments based on contracts with outsiders performing ministerial or custodial duties on behalf of the state, federal or any other government.

Finally, I told her, “Well, ma'am, I don't wish to argue, but, you know, we have filed numerous requests and the key information is not forthcoming.”

The Legendary has no intentions of ever returning there for more of the same treatment.

What would be the point of that?

Let someone else make the inquiries. I have no intention of ever returning to the building.

If the citizens of this community choose to live under those conditions, let them.

Sorry to bother you about all that.

In an interesting aside, two key players in the CEC/Jack Harwell Detention Center deal are retiring. Mr. Moore, the County Auditor mentioned to The Legendary that the strain of maintaining a professional attitude has reached a point of diminishing returns. He is gladly looking forward to retirement.

Mr. Mike Wilson, CEC's Warden retired last week after many decades working in the corrections field for Texas Department of Corrections - he ran the Ellis Unit Death Row facility - and as warden of Mississippi's sprawling delta cotton plantation penitentiary, Parchman Farm. "I've got a date with a bulldozer," he said, smiling. Mr. Wilson is taking up land and site preparation and clearing as a second career.

Asked what made him decide to put in his papers and retire from the corrections field, he said, "It's the violence. Things have changed today and prisons are just a microcosm of what society is doing on the outside. It's the violence.

He smiled ruefully. Following those remarks, he asked to have his conversation with The Legendary placed off the record.

- The Legendary

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