Feature: Wednesday, November 5, 2003
The Jilted Jailhouse Boogie

What will it take to bring Fort Worth and Tarrant County together again?

By Jeff Prince

Love isn’t always ageless and evergreen, but it sometimes re-blossoms after a thorough wilting. Take, for instance, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. According to a certain tabloid, the blonde bombshell and her ex-hubby drummer are cozying up again, and tweener flame Kid Rock has been issued a one-way ticket on the Ankle Express. Poor kid — or rather, poor Kid.

On the local level, another former couple has started making goo-goo eyes at each other, with a third party’s future dangling in the balance. (Note to editor: Is it okay to say “dangling” while discussing romantic metaphors?) Fort Worth and Tarrant County, which split in a huff after negotiations for a new jail contract failed in 2001, are stealing glances once again.

To update you on this little Peyton Place, recall that Fort Worth and Mansfield are about to celebrate their two-year anniversary. That little ol’ town about a half hour’s drive southeast of here has been providing jail services to Fort Worth since Dec. 1, 2001. But don’t expect to hear the popping of champagne corks. The cities are getting along fine, but it’s a pairing without passion, a marriage on the rebound.

Like a man who’s learned that his new wife snores and drools in her sleep, some city officials are daydreaming about an escape — one that carries them back to their old suitor. It won’t be easy. The city and county might have a better shot at a blissful reunion than Pamela and Tommy, but plenty of obstacles remain — including hurt feelings, although both sides downplay them. Opinions still differ on how much money the city should pay or even which formula should be used to determine the bill. Money, pouting, and philosophical differences are the elements of a rocky reunion.

Then, there’s the overcrowding that has occurred at the county jail in the past two years, leaving no room for city prisoners until some jailhouse renovation projects are completed. The county would like the city’s jail business back — just not right now.

On the other hand, the alignment with Mansfield hasn’t appeared to provide Fort Worth with the cost savings that were anticipated. The $900,000 a year in savings predicted by city staff seems to be shrinking. A six-month study by the city showed $130,000 in savings — and a tendency to ignore soft costs that might further shrink these numbers. Police detectives, bonds issuers, and defense attorneys must now make regular trips to Mansfield. Transporting prisoners by van to Mansfield increases the city’s liability. And there is more stress for inmates’ families, who travel to Mansfield for visits or to pick up their relatives upon release.

City council members who have made inquiries about the true costs of the Mansfield contract aren’t always satisfied with the response. “We didn’t get the breakdown I was looking for,” said Chuck Silcox, a stickler for budgetary details. “I was trying to find out if there was anything funny going on. I can’t prove anything, but there’s something about the deal I’m not comfortable with.”

Back in the day, the city and county pooled their money and built a beautiful jail and police headquarters that had the potential to be so cozy and tax-efficient. The betting at both ends of downtown is heavily in favor of the city and county coming together again, and re-establishing a relationship that makes sense for taxpayers, who, after all, are paying for this dance.

Blame it on Mike. The jail contract between Fort Worth and Mansfield was rolling along in its second year, forgotten or ignored by city council members and news media, even though rumors abounded that city staff were not revealing how much money the deal with Mansfield was really costing. Then, in early 2003, former Senator Mike Moncrief decided to run for mayor. During his campaign, he said that renegotiating a contract with Tarrant County would be a top priority if he were elected.

“We have to find a way to use the county jail again,” he said back then.

He referred to his 1974-to-1986 tenure as Tarrant County judge and described how he continued to work with commissioners after he left county government to serve in the Texas Senate for 12 years. “My ties [to the commissioners court] put me in a unique position to reopen negotiations for a new contract,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense for Fort Worth to not be using the county jail. It’s the logical place. I’m not second-guessing the decision to switch to Mansfield, but from talking to police officers and others, I don’t think the facility is adequate. It’s overcrowded; there are complaints about the driving time, time that takes officers off the streets for too long. It’s ... not working.”

Naturally, Moncrief backs a city-county jail agreement, since the idea was born from discussions in the late 1970s between him and then-Mayor Hugh Parmer.

Fort Worth and Tarrant County agreed to construct a police administration building with a county jail on the upper floors at 350 W. Belknap St., with the city paying $11 million and the county contributing $6 million. The deal included a 10-year contract for the county to house the city’s prisoners, with Fort Worth paying $6 to process each prisoner and $1 a day for housing. The building was completed in 1985, and the marriage began.

The contract expired in 1996, with the county complaining it was taking a beating on the deal. The city was still paying $6 for processing, although the daily housing fee had increased to $30 a day. A 1997 jail study showed the county’s costs had risen to $99 for prisoner processing and $40 a day for housing.

Negotiations on a new contract seemed cursed from the start.

City officials wondered if they were being asked to subsidize jail inefficiencies caused by years of shoddy oversight by a couple of kooky two-term sheriffs — the bungling Don “I signed an oral contract” Carpenter and the just plain weird David “God Pod” Williams.

Carpenter had been a goofy irritant, padding his county salary by selling items such as toothpaste and candy to inmates. Commissioners weren’t happy, and Carpenter claimed he sold his private concessions company to Mid-States Services Inc. However, he didn’t take kindly to commissioners questioning him about the particulars of the sale, and when he was asked to present documentation, he said he had “signed” an oral agreement. He was later accused of removing guns from a property room, and in 1993 he pleaded no contest to official misconduct.

By then, he was out of office. Unfortunately for the city and county, however, his replacement, David Williams, would throw an even bigger shadow over jail operations.

The stereotype of a Texas sheriff might be a rough-and-tumble lawman who kicks in doors with pointy cowboy boots while brandishing a double-barreled shotgun, but in reality sheriffs are bureaucrats responsible for managing county jails and the steady flow of thousands of ingoing and outgoing prisoners. Williams was obsessed with fast police vehicles and helicopters, ill-advised raids, forcing Christianity on inmates, playing fast and loose with staffing and overtime costs, and refusing to play nice with county commissioners. He eventually became a recluse and hid inside his office with the door shut.

Negotiations ground to a halt in 1999 after Williams refused to assist in a jail efficiency study. The outdated contract was renewed year after year, and the county continued to complain about shouldering more than its share of the financial burden. City leaders had trouble empathizing because Williams, who served as sheriff from 1992 to 2000, had turned the jail into Alice’s Wonderland.

The election of stable Sheriff Dee Anderson in 2001 promised a new era at the jail. One of Anderson’s first moves was to lure jail administrator Bob Knowles from the Dallas County’s Lew Sterrett Justice Center. Knowles studied Tarrant County’s jail operations and strove to increase efficiencies.

That year, two new sheriffs hit town in effect — Anderson and Gary Jackson. Anderson took office on Jan. 1, vowing to restore the jail’s reputation. In March, Jackson began his tenure as the new city manager. Both were ready to make an impact and soon found themselves across the table in jail negotiations.

County Administrator G.K. Maenius told Jackson that county commissioners wouldn’t agree to any contract that didn’t involve a fee-based structure rather than a flat rate. In plain English, the county wanted to be paid a set amount of money for each city inmate. The city preferred to pay a flat annual fee and send as many prisoners as it wanted.

That summer, Jackson asked for a temporary agreement, perhaps a year or so, to allow more time for negotiation and study. County commissioners were tired of taking a loss and set a Sept. 1 deadline. The county provided cost figures for the intake, housing, and release of each prisoner. City staff took those figures, multiplied them by their average number of prisoners, and then dropped their collective jaws.

“The first offer on the table was for the city to go from paying $2.1 million to $10 million,” Jackson said.

City officials scoffed and suggested an outside consultant do a jail efficiency study. County officials refused, saying a study was costly and unnecessary and findings would still be disputable. Anderson said Knowles had done the same kind of consulting work for years. “Jails hire him for that, and here he is on my payroll,” Anderson said. “Why are we going to pay somebody else to come do it?”

City officials, skittish after years of jail fiascoes, weren’t convinced. Weeks and months passed, numbers were bandied about, methods of streamlining jail operations were introduced, concessions were made, and the two sides grew closer in price but never close enough. The main hitch was the cost formula. The county claimed the city was jailing too many people for too long on minor charges — unpaid traffic citations and Class C misdemeanors, such as public intoxication or theft under $20. Class C cases are tried in municipal courts and typically result in fines or two- or three-day stints in a municipal jail. However, Fort Worth has no municipal jail, so these smalltime lawbreakers were sent to the county jail.

“During these negotiations, I was getting the feeling from the county that they really didn’t want our business,” Fort Worth police Chief Ralph Mendoza said. “They didn’t like our Class C’s and they didn’t like dealing with our drunks.”

County jails operate under state standards and must maintain certain guard-to-inmate ratios and other scrutinized criteria that add to the cost of doing business. City jails don’t have to meet those standards and can operate more cheaply. County officials wanted the city to curb the number of Class C inmates, emphasize work release programs, or create some sort of city holding cell. Dallas police use their county jail for most inmates but maintain a separate drunk tank. “There are a lot of people [in Dallas] that never make it to jail because they throw them in the drunk tank,” Maenius said. “The city of Fort Worth’s philosophy was, ‘we’re not getting back in the jail business.’ The problem for us in that situation is that if we take custody, even if it’s a drunk, this guy is going to be regulated by the commission on jail standards. There’s no such thing as partially booking somebody into a county jail.”

The city wanted a brother-in-law deal and stressed that all of Fort Worth’s taxpayers are also county taxpayers. “The citizens of Fort Worth are paying for the city contract, and they are paying to run the county jail as well,” Mendoza said. “I’ve always believed that we’re getting double-dipped.”

Negotiations stumbled along, and it sometimes seemed as though city and county negotiators were from different planets, unable to agree on a fair price or how to calculate costs, or who was leading the negotiations, or how laws and policies should be interpreted. For years, inmates arrested by Fort Worth police have been considered city prisoners until the district attorney accepts charges two or three days later, at which time they become county prisoners. City attorneys, though, interpret the law differently, saying anyone arrested in violation of a state law immediately becomes a county prisoner. If the city agreed to the county’s demand for a per-prisoner rate, this interpretation would cut the city’s bill considerably.

City officials said an attorney general’s ruling from the 1980s supports their interpretation. But county officials aren’t giving up the argument. “The only way that issue is going to be resolved is with a negotiated contract or, in the extreme case, if there were litigation and it was resolved after an appeal,” said Marvin Collins, civil division chief for the D.A.’s office. “I wouldn’t expect the city to sue the county.”

The county’s deadline was extended to Oct. 1, and that day came and went. On Oct. 11, County Judge Tom Vandergriff sent an ultimatum to Mayor Kenneth Barr — agree to a per-prisoner rate and sign a contract by Nov. 20, or the county would refuse city prisoners after Dec. 31. The letter spurred last-minute negotiations, and the county’s final offer dropped to $135 for intake, $26 a day for housing, and $69 for release. City staff did the math and figured they would be paying about $3.9 million a year. County officials did the math and said it would be closer to $3.3 million, and if the city managed their Class C misdemeanor arrests more efficiently they could reduce the cost even more.

Meanwhile, Mansfield Police Chief Steve Noonkester had been reading news reports about the struggling negotiations and called to ask if Fort Worth might be interested in sending inmates to the Mansfield Law Enforcement Center, which just happened to be hungry for prisoners. Mansfield had built a big jail and adjoining police administration building in 1990. They made a large portion of the jail maximum security to house federal prisoners in addition to Mansfield’s handful of city inmates. Profits from the federal prisoners would help pay down the debt for the entire building.

Five years later, the feds changed the way they house prisoners, ruling that they must be kept at the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, and only sent to Mansfield when Seagoville is full. The number of federal prisoners dwindled. A contract with Oklahoma to house state prisoners filled the void for a while, but by 2001 the Mansfield facility was in need of inmates. The jail needed to fill most of its 240 beds or lay off jail employees.

Mansfield offered Fort Worth the coveted flat rate — $3 million a year plus a 3.5 percent annual increase for inflation. The contract would be automatically renewed each year, unless either side notified the other in writing 90 days before the annual renewal date. “Our goal at the jail nowadays is not necessarily for profit. It’s structured that we try to break even, that it generate enough money to pay for itself, to pay for this building, and to pay that note payment each year,” Noonkester said. “The big expense for running any jail is your staff.”

Mansfield averages about 70 or so federal prisoners a day in addition to its handful of local inmates. Fort Worth’s steady stream of prisoners — about a hundred a day — and flat rate payment would allow the jail to maintain current staffing.

The offer surprised everyone. Few anticipated that Fort Worth would split from the county and start transporting prisoners to formerly dinky but now fast-growing Mansfield, which is about 25 miles southeast of Cowtown.

“I don’t think the county would have ever thought it would happen,” Noonkester said.

City officials figured the county would reduce its demands to ensure Fort Worth stayed. “I think the city believed that we needed the money,” Maenius said. “One thing that everybody failed to realize is that, the way this contract was structured, our loss on this contract was substantial every year.”

County folks figured the city didn’t want to develop a new system, transport prisoners by vans to another city, and force detectives, attorneys, and bonds persons to make long drives to interview inmates. “They felt that we would not leave the facility and that the favorable bargaining position was on their side,” city council member Wendy Davis said.

Conventional wisdom didn’t prevail. City staff told council members that a five-year jail contract with Mansfield, renewable each year, would cost $16 million, compared to more than $21 million based on the county’s terms. The city council voted to go with Mansfield. After five years of bickering, the city and county had divorced — or more accurately, they had separated for a while to get some fresh air and a change of scenery until they could stand to look at each other again. But few people doubted that the city and county would start courting again before too long.

“I don’t think any of us anticipated going to Mansfield,” Mendoza said. “We worked for a long time at trying to renegotiate a contract with the county. They’re in our same facility. It’s centrally located. How Mansfield can do the job they’re doing at the rate they’re doing it is remarkable.”

Splitting with the county meant the city would take on other costs, including a magistrate court, medical costs related to prisoner care, travel time, liability for inmates, and soft costs involving personnel. Currently, people who are arrested are taken to the basement of the Thomas R. Windham Building at 350 W. Belknap St. for a hearing before a municipal judge, and then transferred to Mansfield’s jail. The city has no legal right to the three floors of jail space in its own police headquarters because, under the original city-county agreement, the county had an option to lease the jail space for five years at $1 a year. The county exercised the option two weeks after the bitter split in 2001.

Some observers, including city council members, would eventually start wondering if Fort Worth taxpayers were really getting a bargain with Mansfield.

The main hitch in making accurate comparisons, even today, is that negotiations between the city and county didn’t result in an agreement or even in an agreed method of measuring costs, so determining whether Mansfield’s deal is better than the county deal requires assumptions and what-ifs. “We don’t know what would have ended up in the contract with the county because we never ended negotiating,” Fort Worth Police Capt. Mike Baldwin said “We’re trying to compare apples to oranges because we never had an apples-to-apples comparison.”

The partnership with Mansfield soon hit its own snags. Noonkester had envisioned that magistration, booking, housing, and release, would occur in Mansfield. Instead, after a month, Fort Worth began moving those duties to the Windham Building in downtown Fort Worth at an initial cost of about $235,000 and an annual cost of about that much again. However, Mendoza said that Senate Bill 7, which took effect in 2001 and required a speedier processing of inmates, prompted the change and that it shouldn’t be counted as an expense related to the change in jail contracts.

Noonkester said the city was requiring more of Mansfield than was stated in the contract, such as providing bailiffs and hauling prisoners back and forth for fingerprinting, photo lineups, and additional magistration. Those demands required the hiring of more than a dozen new officers at a cost of $373,275, and he wanted the contract amended. Mendoza countered that some of those costs weren’t attributable to Fort Worth’s actions; he then streamlined other processes. In the end, the contract amount remained the same.

News reporters made attempts to determine the additional costs and make comparisons, but that proved difficult, and not only because of the “apples to oranges” issue. Figures had to come from the police department and the city manager’s office, and the heads of those departments are the ones who urged city council members to approve the Mansfield contract. Jackson and Mendoza would take heat should the decision be revealed as a loser for taxpayers.

KRLD news reporter Jan Darwin’s request for information led to a series of e-mails between city staffers. When Assistant City Manager Libby Watson wrote to Mendoza asking for some statistics, his response included the question, “Why do we need to jump through the hoops for her?” Some information was provided, but determining what it meant and how it could be compared to the old contract was speculative. Darwin’s report never aired.

Meanwhile, the city staff projection of $900,000 in savings from the Mansfield contract was proving to have been optimistic.

The city’s six-month analysis claimed a $130,000 savings, but showed that other additional expenses were cropping up, such as the cost of interpreters ($4,106), ambulance service for inmates that had gone unpaid and been billed to the city ($9,753), and inmate medical care ($2,831). The Mansfield contract called for additional billing for any Class C inmate left in jail more than 10 days. The city had changed its procedures and reduced the number of Class C inmates being incarcerated from 11,381 to 8,494 during the first six months of the Mansfield contact. Still, some Class C inmates were continuing to sit for lengthy periods, resulting in an additional billing of $13,960. The cost of guarding inmates during hospital trips was estimated at almost $50,000 — an amount that wasn’t being tracked until Darwin requested the figure.

Other soft costs weren’t being tabulated, such as the time detectives (Fort Worth has 172 of them) spent making regular trips to Mansfield to interview inmates. Mendoza refuses to consider these as additional costs. “I don’t anticipate trying to capture those soft-dollar type things,” he said recently. “Some of that is just the cost of doing business.”

City staff, however, did use soft-cost savings to justify the new contract in its six-month report, which said the city had saved $131,000 in “personnel time” because police officers were not having to wait as long to get prisoners booked as they had under the county contract.

City council members were asking financial questions and getting similar brush-offs or confusing information, but they had become so enmeshed in myriad other city issues that the jail contract was soon forgotten. A recent Fort Worth Weekly request for city correspondence regarding the jail provided a stack of reports, e-mails, and notes, but nothing after September 2002 — apparently, not a single piece of paper has been generated by the city in more than a year. One of the more humorous pieces of correspondence released by the city was an unsigned, handwritten note referring to a conversation between Silcox and “L.W.” — presumably Libby Watson in the city manager’s office. Silcox questioned the jail contract, wondered how much costs were increasing, and told staff “not to cover anything up.”

L.W.: We wouldn’t do that.

Silcox: Oh bullshit!

Last month, Silcox was asked about the contract. “I haven’t touched on that in about a year,” he said. “The original deal given us by Mansfield showed we would save a pretty big chunk of change, but there have been some cost increases. One of the problems is there are staff members who I get the feeling don’t want to go back with the county. It’s strange. Council members will come up with stuff, and staff just seems reluctant to do it.”

Two years later, little has changed. Jackson, especially, has reason to be defensive. City leaders took his advice on switching to Mansfield. Since then, he has overseen numerous unpopular decisions, including mass annexations that were drastically scaled back after public uproar, a controversial computer upgrade that has suffered vast problems and accusations of corruption, an attempt to build a city-owned hotel without asking voters, and an overhaul of the garbage system that continues to create controversy. Most of those issues were already rolling before he became city manager, but they’re his babies now.

“It always goes to the top,” City Councilman Jim Lane said. “He inherited most of all that stuff ... but like Truman said, ‘The buck stops here.’ I think Gary has felt a lot of that heat and criticism.”

Now Lane is waffling on the contract, even though he helped represent the city in negotiations and supported the switch. “There’s no question we should be in cahoots with the county and we should have a city-county jail,” he said. “The city of Fort Worth is where the county seat is. It only made sense to have a city-county jail there together. When you are transporting prisoners, you have the added risk factor of collisions, time, and just the inconvenience is tremendous for these people who are being transported down there to Mansfield. The facility is adequate in Mansfield, and evidently they’ve done a good job. But common sense would tell me if we could work toward a city-county jail contract, it would benefit everybody concerned. It has nothing to do with saying Mansfield hasn’t done a great job. It’s just that if we could get the numbers right, the common-sense approach would be to do it with the county.”

Anybody knows that a couple torn apart by circumstance might harbor secret desires to reunite, but there is a certain amount of timidity and of playing hard to get. Throwing yourself at someone’s feet isn’t the answer. This positioning is apparent among both city and county officials. The issues that drove them apart are still there, and both sides are trying to perform the maneuver of simultaneously sticking to their guns and opening the door for future negotiations.

The sheriff has said there is no room at the jail for city prisoners, but that could change in the next year as jail renovations are completed. “Will I be able to do it in the future? I hope so, and I told the mayor that,” Anderson said. “I told him I would look forward to re-establishing that relationship when the time came that I could do it. I think he’d be more comfortable if it was a city-county jail again. A lot of people would. Is it do-able? Absolutely. Perhaps time has changed their viewpoint somewhat, and we could meet somewhere in the middle and make it happen. There have been discussions between the county administrator’s office and the city manager’s office. The mayor is a strong leader, and if he wants to see it done, he has the influence to help move it along.”

Anderson quickly hedged his bet, not to appear too eager. “There is a down side for us, I’m not going to hide that fact,” he said. “Our jail is a much more peaceful place than it ever was when we were the city-county jail. You don’t fight drunks at the back door anymore. ... Our world is much quieter and calmer down here, but if it’s for the best interest of the taxpayers and the best interest of the city and the county, we’re willing to take that back on.”

County commissioners will decide whether they want the county to hook up with the city. Commissioner J.D. Johnson, a representative on the county negotiating team, said he would be happy to reopen negotiations, although he prefers not to handle Fort Worth’s drunks. “If and when we get room to house their prisoners, I’d be willing to negotiate with an open mind but for whatever our true cost is,” he said.

Mendoza is stoic and practical. “We’re open to listen to any bid that can save us money,” he said. “We took Mansfield because they were the lowest bid. If the county or some other organization were to roll in here and say we can do it for less, it’s my responsibility to tell the city manager that we got a bid on the table and it will save us money.”

And the city manager, whose blessing would almost certainly sway the city council to return to a county contract, presents a similar open-minded but guarded stance. “What we’re interested in doing at this point is talking to the county about a long-term solution,” he said. “We don’t see this current arrangement with Mansfield being a long-term relationship. It works well. It’s most cost-effective in this interim period, but we would really like, wherever possible, to enter into a cooperative agreement with the county and would welcome reopening discussions with them.”

Oh, and as for Kid Rock, er, Mansfield officials: They appreciate Fort Worth’s business and want them to stay. But they won’t grovel. “Right now Fort Worth is our customer,” Noonkester said. “During the time that there is a contract with the city of Fort Worth, we’re going to do the best possible job for them that we can do. What they’re going to do in the future I can’t say, and it’s been that way since Day One.”

Spoken like someone who senses a future jilting.

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