The Hays County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 in favor of a parks bond election this November. Jacob's Well Natural Area (above) could gain over 110 acres of land if the bond is approved by county voters. Daily Record File Photo by Lance Winter
County sets $75 million parks bond for November ballot
The Hays County Commissioners Court voted in favor of a bond election this November for parks, conservation, connectivity and flood mitigation projects at $75 million.
All but Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe voted in favor of putting the bond on the ballot, leaving it up to the residents to decide in what will likely be a record turnout election year.
“Further detail still needs to be done. I can’t tell you what my personal vote is but I won’t take that opportunity from the voters,” said Judge Ruben Becerra.
Commissioner Lon Shell echoed the consensus after they considered delaying the bond to May 2021 due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy saying, “If it wasn’t for the election we were having, I would have been more supportive of delaying.”
Commissioner Mark Jones noted the surprising amount of support he heard from constituents of a parks bond at this time.
Commissioner Walt Smith advocated for a lower bond amount but urged the court to capitalize on these opportunities now.
“If you look at the astronomical amounts of development going on,” Smith said. “I know that there are properties or watershed features in my precinct I know of that will not be here if we wait. These are truly once in a lifetime projects.”
Ingalsbe voted no after hearing from many residents from her precinct on the east side of Hays County who were concerned about current and future economic conditions after COVID-19.
“I really want to stress that even if I don’t support moving forward at this time, it's absolutely not that I don’t support the initiative,” said Ingalsbe. “I think they’re very important ... it's just a difficult time.
Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Commission (POSAC) recommended a bond initiative for November between $75 and $80 million that would keep the county tax rate the same and would partially fund the 16 proposed projects.
The projects included acquiring more land for parks, trails and natural areas, protecting existing parks and hydrological features, creating swimming holes, building a hike and bike bridge, building a nature center, building a urban park and resource center for veterans and a trail system and sportsplex.
Sheriff says zero outsourcing budget will take time
Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler and Captain Julie Villalpando advocated for additional jail outsourcing funds in the 2021 proposed budget during the county’s first budget workshop Tuesday. Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra had set it at zero dollars, a $3.48 million reduction from 2020.
“While it is our goal to bring inmates back from other counties, unfortunately, it is imperative to remind the court that we will not be able to cease inmate outsourcing for a few reasons,” said Villalpando.
She explained the renovations to the old jail facility and the opening of the new jail involve phases where inmates will have to be moved around according to the availability of housing spaces. Some phases will allow inmates to be brought back from other jails, and others may require more inmates to be housed at other facilities until renovations are completed in April 2021
The jail will also have to hire additional correctional officers to comply with Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) officer ratios. They are also requesting to convert an existing position to create an inmate program director that would be responsible for creating new programs like substance abuse programs, religious counseling, job search, mental health services and physical and recreational activities.
At minimum, the jail needs $822,475 for outsourcing for 2021, as long as current population numbers hold steady, according to Villalpando.
Inmate population has been increasing for years, except for an initiative to release inmates prior to COVID-19. The population has shot up from an average daily population of 301 in 2014 to 553 in 2018 and 466 in 2020 as of July. The jail population has increased 54.8% since 2014 while the resident population has only increased by 24.5%.
The current jail only houses 311 inmates according to the TCJS, and as a result they have had to outsource more than 100 inmates consistently at rates of $50-$70 per night, resulting in the outsourcing budget at $3.48 million.
Becerra’s zero dollar line item attempts to address the jail’s overpopulation, which should be eased when the new jail is completed, ideally in accompaniment with supporting other new services such as the new Magistration Division which extended the availability of magistrates, decreasing time spent in jail; the new prosecutor for the Texas A&M magistration study to track outcomes for the accused having representation at magistration; and the Cite and Divert program, which allows people who have committed certain low-level nonviolent offenses to meet with a prosecutor from the District Attorney’s Office rather than appearing before a magistrate and being booked into jail.
“Like everyone here, everyone is frustrated with outsourcing, because it has created a different workload for us,” Villalpando said. “We want to bring everyone back. TCJS will not allow us to continue to outsource inmates forever. They have understood our situation this far.”
Smith and Shell agreed that there has to be some funding set aside for outsourcing, advocating on behalf of victims.
“What I want to advocate for is to make sure that those victims aren’t going to be scared because we’re going to kick out somebody that shouldn't be kicked out,” Smith said.
Becerra agreed victims needed to be protected and stood by his initial goal saying there had already been much invested in that direction, “We should double down and fortify everything we have done to ensure people who don't need to be in jail aren't ... Let's invest in programs that will help the community instead of just locking people up.”