Harris County currently spends nearly 16 percent - about $174 million - of its annual operating expenses on the current jail system. Adding the two proposed jails, where construction cost is at least $267 million, would increase maintenance costs to as much as 25 percent, say opponents of the plan. They say the county can maintain public safety without building the facilities.
The county has yet to determine exact costs to operate the proposed facilities. Two county leaders said they were not in a position to discuss what percentage of the county's budget would be needed to maintain the buildings, but they would not dispute that most likely the percentage would rise.
Commissioners Court probably will ask voters next November to approve bonds for the new jails, which would increase the current number of beds by nearly 50 percent.
"The operating expenses would amount to an incredible amount of money," said Randall Kallinen, head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Houston. "Everybody who owns property taxes in Harris County would likely see their taxes go up significantly to pay for these facilities."
County Judge Robert Eckels said the two jails are needed because the county's population will increase greatly during the next two decades. County officials are mindful that they need to spend taxpayer dollars carefully, but they also consider public safety their highest priority, he said.
"The reason the county exists is to ensure the safety of the community," he said. "The jail, the probation department - all of these programs are expensive."
Besides, as Grits has pointed out, we don't have enough guards for the jails we have now. Hell, we've had to close off sections of our current jails because we didn't have the staff levels to support them. How is building more jails a good idea under those conditions?
Commissioner Steve Radack acknowledged that the county will spend more on jail expenses if the two jails are built. "The public will have to make a decision when it comes to the inmate population," he said. "And that decision will be does the public want to keep people incarcerated or do they want to pay with damages and break-ins to their property and possibly their lives if we don't keep people incarcerated."
I can't help but think that if this money was to be spent on almost any other kind of program, people like Steve Radack would be all over it with a fine-toothed comb, insisting that every dime be rigorously accounted for before he'd consent to it. Why is it that that kind of fiscal conservatism goes out the window when we're talking about jails? Is it simply not possible for "git tuff on crime" to be wasteful?
"I don't mind spending whatever it takes to have a safe community," [State Sen. John Whitmire] said. "But you don't spend unnecessary dollars to lock people up who don't pose security risk. You could go through the county jail and find hundreds, if not thousands, of offenders who don't pose a risk to the community."
Some members of the Houston Property Rights Association, which guards against what it sees as unneeded government initiatives that could raise taxes, say they aren't convinced new jails are needed. Ronnie Samms, an association member and a former prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, said violent offenders need to be jailed, but officials must weigh the cost of building new jails. "We don't need to keep building jails because we don't want to be paying for them," Samms said at a recent association meeting.