Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jail roof fixed, smoke alarms on hold pending cost

$1.2 million revamp unfinished

“Smoke good, fire bad...” - Frankenstein

Waco – Frankenstein was wrong. Fire still bad  -  smoke even worse...

It's not fire that kills; it's the smoke. Inmates who riot routinely set fire to smoldering items such as bedding and paper, plastic and styrofoam - items that generate very toxic fumes when they burn.

They want out, and they often are willing to risk their own lives and the lives of their fellow inmates to risk the chance. What a way to go.

After nearly three years of vacancy, the 300-plus capacity old Courthouse Annex Jail is still on hold, even though the roof does not leak and all systems are go.

The burning question is this. Does the smoke evacuation system come up to the standards of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards?

To find out, the Court learned from Building Supervisor Sammy Sykora, they will have to hire a test and evaluation firm, a system engineer, and an alarm engineer in order to study the problem and certify the results.

Mr. Sykora told the Court that it's unclear if the smoke alarm and evacuation system has ever been tested since its installation by HVAC contractor Lochridge-Priest, way back in the now-murky days of yesteryear of 1978.

“They never test them with the inmates in there,” he explained. “With the jail being empty...”

It could be a risky gamble to just haul off and call the inspector.

The test is straightforward enough. You release a series of smoke bombs into the indoor areas of the jail. If the automatic evacuation system kicks on, the fans blow and the louvers open up within a certain amount of time, the next phase of the test is even more crucial.

Once the all-clear comes, and it's time to put the inmates back in the lockup, will the smoke detectors cause the system to re-start automatically within the next 15 minutes? If it does, like the ricochet biscuit that doesn't bounce back and hit you in the mouth – you go hungry!

Time is of the essence, since it only takes a few seconds to die of carbon monoxide poisoning, a deadly gas that is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but kills very quickly.

Arson is a murderous practice, on either side of the bars.

Mr. Sykora and a commission inspector recently performed an informal test using smoke bombs that showed the detectors and automatic fans and louvers still work correctly, but the system itself is made up of fans and other components they don't even make any more.

“You can't even get parts for it,” he said of a return air fan that “balances” the intake and exhaust system designed to make a complete turnover in the indoor atmosphere within a specified period of time.

Who knows if they used the amount of smoke that is a standard of the commission's real testing? If anyone knows, it's not Sammy Sykora, he assured the Court.

The economic conundrum facing the Court is simple enough.

The jail is still operable under a permit that was voluntarily suspended when the County government made a decision to upgrade a leaky roof and other components of the building.

If the smoke evacuation system fails the test, taxpayers would be stuck with the bill to replace it, anyway.

“We need to find out the cost,” said Interim County Judge Scott Felton, a retired banker with experience in true cost accounting.

Following Mr. Sykora's presentation, County Auditor Stan Chambers demonstrated by the numbers that it costs about the same amount to house prisoners in the Highway 6 County Jail as it does to pay CEC, Inc., to house them in the for-profit Jack Harwell Detention Center.

Factoring in transport and health care, the fixed costs of housing overflow inmates at the corporate jail are only slightly lower than than the variable costs of housing them at the county's lockup. Judge Felton pointed out that contractually, the County is obligated to send overflow prisoners to the Jack Harwell Detention Center, which was built with funds raised from a revenue bond issue backed by the full faith and credit of McLennan County - without voter approval.

The variable involved in operation of the County Jail is the rate of inflation experienced on any given day, according to Mr. Chambers.

One may click here for an edited audio report of the Court's discussion of the smoke detector system by clicking here.

It's an item that has presented a recurring budgetary headache to the McLennan County budget. The matter of housing overflow prisoners, particularly on weekends when judges have sentenced offenders to do their time on minor offenses, has driven the cost over budget by as much as 300 percent for the item.

The Courthouse Annex Jail was contracted to CEC to operate as a lockup for federal prisoners, but the corporation vacated the contract in favor of housing overflow prisoners at the Jack Harwell Detention Center in exchange for paying a monthly fee to not use the downtown annex jail.

It prompted a serious debate at budget planning time when after two weeks of negotiations, the Court had only come up with spending increases and no budget cuts.

Freshman Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry stimulated some debate when he showed the Court a way to avoid a tax increase and still cut spending while saving popular programs former County Judge Jim Lewis had suggested fall under the axe.

One may read a previous report on Commissioner Perry's proposal and hear an audio presentation by clicking here.

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