Sherman

Grayson County's Decision to Privatize Goes to Public Vote

Last Monday, Grayson County commissioners came to the decision that they will put the hotly debated subject of whether to build a new jail or renovate the existing downtown jail to a vote by the people. The motion calling for a vote by the people passed with a four to one margin. Commissioner Short voted against the motion because he felt the "wording was too loose," and he "had little time to look over related documents" ("$34 Million Bond to Build or Renovate Grayson County Jail Will Go Before Voters;" KTEN).

County Judge, Drue Bynum

Yay
Precinct 1 Commissioner, Johnny Waldrip

Yay
Precinct 2 Commissioner, David Whitlock

Yay
Precinct 3 Commissioner, Jackie Crisp

Yay
Precinct 4 Commissioner, C.E. "Gene" Short

Nay

The vote will happen next November, and voters will see the following proposition on the ballot: "The issuance of $34,000,000 of Grayson County tax bonds for constructing, improving, renovating, equipping and acquiring land for county jail purposes and the levying of a tax payment thereof" ("Jail Bond Stirs More Controversy;" KTEN).


The original intention of the vote was to determine whether or not the county jail should be privately or publically operated. However, the "loose" wording in the proposition says nothing about these options, and merely declares that the county will have $34 million "for county jail purposes." What these purposes are, exactly, have not yet been laid out for the public. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the vote's passing will keep a private company from operating the facility in the future. All that has been guaranteed is that 750 beds will be added -- either to the downtown jail or to a new structure which will assumedly be privately run. 


"Many residents, county and city leaders, including Sherman's Mayor Bill Magers, have questioned if the county needs a jail that large, and believe a smaller facility will do. [County Judge] Bynum has consistently said the 750 bed figure comes from approval by the Texas Jail Commission over the projected needs for the county in the next two decades" ("$34 Million Bond to Build or Renovate Grayson County Jail Will Go Before Voters;" KTEN).


"I think it speaks for itself," said Judge Drue Bynum. "We've bent over backwards. This is a tough, tough proposition and endeavor we're taking. Sometimes when people say one thing and have to put their money where their mouth is, obviously, you get a different reaction and we saw that today..." Grayson County resident Tony Beaverson has been an outspoken critic of the court and it's decision to precede with the private route. He told KTEN he was encouraged when he heard the court was taking the issue to the voters, but not when he learned the details. "The people will vote on a bond issue with no substance, no particulars behind it," said Tony Beaverson. "[The Court is saying] just give us a blank check and with that blank check they can still do what they originally planed to do." From now until November, the court is still going to precede with the private option. Monday morning they signed off a number of proposals with Southwest Correctional. Bynum says they are doing that, so in case the bond fails, they'll be ready to move forward with the private option because something has to be done quickly ("Jail Bond Stirs More Controversy;" KTEN).

The vote appears to be a move by the Commissioners to give the appearance of choice to the citizens of Grayson County, but the wording, as it stands now, does not protect the county jail from privatization either now or in the future. Additionally, there is no precise plan for what the money will be spent on. On the same day as the vote was declared, the County moved ahead in negotiations with Southwest Correctional, because no matter which way the vote goes, there is a potential for privatization. Whether the vote passes and the County spends the money on "county jail purposes," which could include renovations to the downtown jail or a new facility (without a guarantee that either the renovated downtown jail or the new facility will not be privatized), or the vote fails and Southwest Correctional constructs their own facility, the private option has already won before the vote is conducted. Until the Commissioners change the wording in the proposition, or scrap it all and start over with a clearer plan, it seems as though the citizens have no choice but the private choice, with the commissioners selling out the democratic process in a faustian pact for wealth.

 

Sherman's Fight Against Proposed Private Prison

From a story I wrote at Private Prison Watch, the city of Sherman, TX in Grayson County has been entrenched in an ongoing battle against a proposed for-profit prison and an irresponsible construction scheme for years. Just recently, the city commissioners met again last Monday to discuss a land deal for the new prison -- before even signing a contract with a prison operating company! However, the county remains at a stalemate, as commissioners take the public opposition into consideration. All-in-all, it will cost the county $33 million to contract the construction and maintenance to LaSalle Corrections, when it would only cost $31 million to rennovate and expand the existing Sherman jail. Perhaps cost is not the only issue.

Grayson County Judge Drue Bynum, the main figure in the debates who has been responsible for encouraging these plans, said in regards to the proposed plans "we [need] to get ourselves off high-center, and now we are off high-center" ("Private Jail Option Approved by Grayson County Leaders" KTEN, July 13th). In other words, he wants to remove the County's involvement with their prisoners and take the out of sight, out of mind approach.

The proposed land siting for the new prison has some Sherman residents upset, and for good reason. The proposed prison site (shown here in red) is directly across Highway 11 from a residential area. With concerns over 24/7 bright lights and noise, one can only speculate as to the upcoming property value decreases. The prison site is only 0.6 miles from the second nearest densely populated residential area, city parks (shown in blue), and within one mile from the Sherman elementary school (shown in pink). 
Because of these concerns, a second proposed prison site has been proposed on laned owned by by cotton mammoth Anderson Clayton as a disposal location for decades before today, where it is owned by a Dow Jones board member Christopher Bancroft. This siting would move the prison away from the Southeast into the Northeast, away from the elementary school and residential areas. This proposed siting, however, has not been approved. With the proposed prison to hold 1,500 additional people, there will without a doubt be a sizeable increase in traffic from prisoner visitors, prison employees, legal counselers, and police personnel coming and going at a regular rate. If this new facility is constructed, it will increase Sherman's prison population five fold. Sherman's Mayor, Bill Magers has said, "I understand the concerns of those who live there about having this [prison] near them. I would have the same concerns if I lived there" (Herald Democrat; February 5, 2008). The mayor appears to be the only city official to speak out against moving the Sherman prison out of downtown, stating that it doesn't make to create 1,500 more prison beds when the population of Sherman is 140,388 and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards estimates that about 3 people for every 1,000 are incarcerated -- meaning Sherman only needs about half the amount of the 1,500 prison beds.

The opponents and the Sherman mayor are in a standoff against the pricinct commissioners who have plans of importing prisoners from Dallas to make a profit. The startup costs, both in finance and safety are extremely high if this plan follows through, and the potential for profit is minimal. "I think it's time to stop the for-profit, private option and return to the basic concept of expanding the jail downtown," said Sheriff Keith Gary. "[The downtown prison is] near the courts and avoid[s] the pitfalls we have learned exist with a private corporation" ("Private Jail Option Approved by Grayson County Leaders," KTEN, July 13th). 

There is a great risk that Sherman's jail project will amount to another failed Public Facilities Corporation situation (read about PFCs in Grassroots Leadership's "Considering a Private Jail...?"). So long as Mayor Magers and the citizens of Sherman keep thinking about their own interests and not the interests of private companies, there is a good chance this stalemate will end in the rational choice to remodel instead of reinvent. 
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