Llano County residents upset by jail study, possible 'depopulation'

This story appeared in the Tuesday, Aug. 6, edition of The Highlander. It prompted a letter to the editor on Thursday, Aug. 10, also found here on HighlanderNews.com and to be included in the Friday, Aug. 11, print edition of The Highlander.

By Phil Reynolds

The Highlander

Llano County commissioners got an earful Monday from county residents who want to keep the county jail open.

Commissioners held a budget workshop but part of that involved a study by Precinct One Commissioner Peter Jones on the feasibility of turning Llano County Jail prisoners over to Burnet County under a contract yet to be written.

Jones emphasized that he hasn’t finished the study. But he said preliminary numbers indicate that the county could save some $170,000 a year by sending inmates to the reginal jail in Burnet.

Llano County now sends about 21 percent of its prisoners to Burnet, but Jones conceded that that’s partly because of a need to separate male and female inmates. The Burnet jail, originally a privately-owned facility, has 587 inmate beds, of which 470 are now in use. Jones said it costs Llano County $15-$20 per day per inmate to send prisoners to Burnet.

But speakers objected based on the loss of jobs and income in Llano, a reduction in law enforcement because of the number of sheriff’s deputies needed to transport prisoners, and the inability of the county to re-open the jail once it’s closed.

(Jones said, however, that the proposal for the jail was the “depopulate” it, considered a temporary measure by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.)

Jones also emphasized that rumors spread by internet ahead of the meeting were largely incorrect – that commissioners are looking at a final budget, that the court is holding private meetings and that the proposal “blind sided” Sheriff Bill Blackburn.

Blackburn, one of nine speakers who addressed commissioners, said vehicles used to transport inmates to Burnet typically have more than 200,000 miles on the odometers and are “at the bottom of the line.” He said no one has considered the economic benefit to Llano businesses of days when court is held there, and added that if the jail is ever re-instituted, it would have to be retrofitted to then-current jail standards.

One speaker, John Wilkerson, said commissioners haven’t explored such things as the cost to the community in not having deputies available to respond to calls because they’re busy transporting prisoners.

“I have a hard time understanding why, when there’s a budget shortfall, the first area to suffer is law enforcement,” Wilkerson said.

He urged commissioners to “get with community leaders and find out where law enforcement is on their priorities.”

Jones said commissioners must come up with a solution because preliminary drafts of the 2017-18 budget show a projected $2 million shortfall.

Not addressed was the suggestion that Llano County could avoid transporting any prisoners by enlarging the current jail. Jones noted that the county this year paid off its outstanding debt and if voters wished, an additional bond issue could be approved for a jail expansion.

At least one more budget workshop will be held before commissioners approve the budget, but no date has been set for that workshop. The new budget will tae effect Oct. 1.

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