Commissioners say they were 'blindsided' by proposal to stop housing federal inmates

El Paso County Jail

El Paso County leaders say they were blindsided by Commissioner Vince Perez's call for the county to stop housing federal inmates. On Sunday, Perez released data that he said is proof the county is losing money, losing your tax dollars, by housing federal inmates.

CBS4 took his concerns to the rest of Commissioners Court to ask if they agree with Perez. They said it's something they've been talking about, but not something they're ready to act on.

"I was surprised that Commissioner Perez had a press conference yesterday and gave the media information before he presented it to us,” Commissioner David Stout said.

"Before this press conference, I think we had all assumed we were going to be talking through this during budget. Budget starts in summer,” County Judge Veronica Escobar said.

"We're not talking about canceling it yet. We're talking about more studies to make sure that the expenses that we're incurring are actually that high,” Commissioner Carlos Leon said.

The other commissioners and the county judge said they didn't see it coming when Perez held a news conference urging the county to stop housing federal inmates. Right now, El Paso County is housing almost 700 federal inmates in county jails. There is a contract where the government pays the county to house them. But Perez thinks the money we get is less than the cost to keep the inmates, about $10 per day per inmate less.

"Once the expansion of the Annex is complete, we will have 3,000 jail beds. But our local population is only 1,500. So we almost have double the capacity of what we actually need for our community. What the sheriff is doing is he's trying to plug the empty beds for the federal inmates, and it's a losing proposition for taxpayers,” Perez said. "Over the course of the last several years, property taxpayers have subsidized approximately $17 million for this contract. Even though these inmates are the federal government's responsibility, we are not recouping the full cost to house these inmates. The loss, the $17 million loss, is coming out of property taxpayer funds."

Sheriff Wiles said the county is earning money on beds that would be empty anyway and the federal money pays for the jails' fixed costs.

"So it does not make any sense that we not take advantage of the dead space we have and bring that revenue into El Paso County,” Wiles said.

Perez said one potential solution is to shut down the downtown jail altogether.

"The downtown jail facility is over 30 years old, it's not ADA accessible, it's due for a major overhaul when it comes to plumbing. There's been millions of dollars poured into it for repairs,” Perez said. "If we were to terminate this contract and only have our local inmates which total 1,500, they would be able to be housed in one facility. Right now there is a lot of duplication in the system. We have to jail facilities, we have two booking facilities, we have two kitchens, we have two laundry facilities, we have two dining facilities and we have two recreational facilities. For a county of our size, it does not make sense."

Wiles said it is a bad idea and 200 jobs would be lost.

“This jail here centralizes booking, it's a transfer station, we hold prisoners here that are going to court so we don't have to keep moving them back and forth,” Wiles said. " We would lose 200 well-paying jobs in our community. That's 200 people that we are going to have to lay off that are paying bills, buying houses, buying cars paying taxes every day. So even if there is a small amount of money, which I disagree with Commissioner Perez, but even if there were, I think the benefits to our community is it keeps jobs and keeps people in El Paso."

Commissioners Stout and Andrew Haggerty said this is something the county has been talking about for almost three years.

"It was a bit of a surprise because Commissioner Perez and I have been on a committee about this multiple times, we've had multiple discussions about it. We have differences of opinions on a lot of it. And I don't think all of the numbers he gave are verified by county either. It was definitely out of left field,” Haggerty said.

In a response to Haggerty’s claims, Perez said, “Haggerty and I were part of a subcommittee that was supposed to look into this—but it kind of fizzled out. But my office continued to research and work towards potential solutions. I’m not sure where he is on the research.”

The County Commissioners and Escobar had varying opinions today about whether they would support terminating the contract or shut down the jail, but they all agreed they didn't have enough information to cast an informed vote.

"Philosophically, I do not support the contract. But I want to make the decision in a responsible way. It's not like turning a light switch on and off. There's a domino effect,” Escobar said.

Some people have questioned the timing, given the new sanctuary cities law. Perez told CBS4 his timing had to do with Escobar announcing she is not running for re-election.

“This has been a topic that the Commissioners Court has been wrestling with for three years. As you saw from today’s announcement, the judge announced she’s not running for reelection and possibly running for Congress. I just wanted to be sure this information was made publicly available to the courts and to the public as timely as possible,” Perez said.

“Given the dynamic, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the makeup of the court in the coming months. This has been too big of a problem for the court to ignore. It’s my sincere hope that the court looks at the information and recognizes its urgency. The data is very concerning, and very deserving of the court’s immediate attention.”

Perez also said “the data was surprising, not just the cost but the level of undocumented immigrants in the system. Perez said 72 percent of the federal inmates currently in El Paso jails are immigrants, and our county is taking a stand against Senate Bill 4 on a state level when we are housing those immigrants on the taxpayer's dime.”

He said he was just in bringing this to the attention of the community, and was not required to notify the court of his press conference.

“Every commissioner and the judge has access to the same data I do. The County Jail is one of the biggest responsibilities of the Commissioners Court. It is the single largest expenditure of the county budget, $70 million per year. That’s 25 percent of the general fund.”

On the topic of Haggerty’s accusations about Perez’s numbers being inaccurate, Perez responded, “My office did produce the packet, but with the county’s jail booking data and county’s financial data. Technically [the Budget department] didn’t confirm it—but they gave us information that assured me that we were on the on the right track. I’m very confident in the accuracy of the data, and this is more information than the court has ever received in three years. The court should give the concerning information a serious consideration.”

Perez said he plans to put an item on next week's meeting agenda to discuss the proposal. The rest of the court said they currently do not have enough information to take a vote. CBS4 will make sure you know what happens.

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