Reporting by R.S. Gates
Story by The Legendary Jim Parks
Waco – Crony capitalism strikes again amid idle promises, a historic tax rate hike, and a stated goal to reduce the McLennan County budget by 4 percent.
Look for heat and light at tomorrow's regular session of Commissioners Court, if not blood and feathers on the floor.
Come Tuesday, voters will see the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope to a rising budget, and it's all about the jail – overcrowding – and an attempt to clear cases by using a new concept called the “rocket docket.”
|County Judge Scott Felton|
At the center of the controversy, a retired banker named Scott Felton, who accepted an appointment as County Judge while making noises that he will not seek re-election, a Commissioners Court acting in reaction to taxpayer rage, and a junta of five State District Judges who vowed to reduce jail crowding and reduce a runaway budget.
The result? The Court is slated to transfer $200,000 in contingency funds to the court security budget to pay officers to guard the Courts as the defense bar and the Criminal District Attorney's staff struggle to attempt to stem the overwhelming tide of criminal prosecution that has not cleared the system due to an intractable attitude precluding plea bargaining. If a conviction calls for a 15-year sentence, the office's plea offer is for 15 years. Accused offenders are in no hurry to become convicted and transfer to the state penitentiary. The resulting squeeze is disastrous for taxpayers.
If the court repeats this action each quarter, the result will be an $800,000 rise in the annual budget for court security.
We've been here before.
Criminal District Attorney Abel Reyna gained election to his first term in 2010 by attacking veteran DA John Segrest's track record of prosecuting only about 50 percent of offenses charged.
“That's no better than a coin flip,” he told voters, as he made the rounds of quincerias, family reunions, lodge picnics and golf tournaments. Three quarters through that first term, the court found itself making adjustments, and the appointed County Judge – a banker with a long track record of analyzing balance sheets - talking about a sinking cash reserve fund that wouldn't fly with any lender or board in the corporate world. With a sagging credit rating looming, he led the Commissioners Court in a historic tax rate hike.
It's all about the debt service on a $49 million boondoggle, the publicly funded, privately operated Jack Harwell Detention Center, which represents an annual obligation to taxpayers of $4.5 million. To meet that obligation, the Sheriff's Office has closed a 350-bed jail in the Courthouse Annex, thus creating another component to the artificial demand for bunk space.
An ill-advised idea of a GOP-dominated Court that did not foresee a glut in county jail bed space, it is the result of hundreds of conservative local governments getting on the bandwagon to privatize a ministerial duty prescribed by the State Constitution – to provide jail space for those awaiting trial, doing time on federal charges, or awaiting transfer to the state penal colony.
Why shouldn't private investors clip the coupons, collect the profits, and the wrongdoing of offenders provide a revenue stream?
Because the numbers just won't support it, that's why.
Said a knowledgeable observer, “I mean, it's just scheme after scheme after scheme to make that jail pay off, and there's people getting rich over it...They have to pay that $4.5 million each year whether there are people in the jail, or not.
“When the budget was passed with a huge tax increase, they said there would be a 4% reduction required by each department. Not even 3 months into the budget, they are right back to plundering the emergency fund. Do you think it is a coincidence the public record is one page with no explanation to support the budget increase?”