Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jail Phone, Video Budget A Confusing Mass Of Accounts

A Legendary Investigation
Reporting by R.S. Gates

It all started out as simple and straightforward as could be.

When you build a new jail, you will be needing a visitation and telephone area. Why not make it state of the art, complete with non-contact video visitation and kiosks capable of placing funds on an inmate's “books” for phone calls and minor purchases available through the canteen?

No problem, but then then someone forgot to allocate enough space for the new video visitation area.


That required a separate transaction for the acquisition of 10 acres of property upon which to expand the planned Jack Harwell Detention Center and link the McLennan County Jail's visitation and telephone center to the new facility.

Price: $140,000 at $14,000 per acre, which is anywhere from three to four times the appraised value of adjacent properties.

None of the money spent to set up and maintain the visitation and phone services involves county funds, according to Purchasing Director Kenn Bass, because the arrangement is what is termed a service agreement.

This is in spite of the fact that the Reston, Virginia-based contractor, GTL, provided installation of fiberoptic infrastructure, phones and computer terminals.

The total cost is $1.4 million, a debt to be retired at the rate of $30,500 per month for 48 months with a final payment of $16,500. So far, so good.

With all three adult jails and the juvenile facility at full capacity, the contractor estimates that the total revenue will be about $45,000 per month, which will leave the county a commission of $15,000 per month.

What does the County get in return? Phones and computers to cover the downtown jail, the County Jail on Highway 6, and the Jack Harwell Detention Center operated by CEC, Inc., and seven-day-a-week service provided by GTL.

Again, it all seems so straightforward until you begin to delve into the convoluted money trails between the ultra-expensive inmate phone calls – prices begin at nearly $5 for the first minute and as much as just under $1 per minute for subsequent conversation – to the whereabouts of an initial payment of $1.29 million from the contractor, GTL. The money went into a fund in 2009 and has not re-emerged in subsequent budgets.

During that time, County Judge Jim Lewis served as McLennan County's Budget Director, something precluded by the Texas Local Government Code in counties with a population of more than 225,000. He has since been replaced by Adam Harry, long-term employee of County Treasurer Bill Helton, who is leaving his office the last day of this month.

Click here for a more detailed view of the accounting information.

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