2008-10-29 / Front Page

Willacy commissioners move to reduce county jail debt by $3 million

Resolution sent to legislators over ICE Unit firings
ROBERT WILCOX Reporter

Willacy County's commissioners voted to give Sheriff Larry Spence $202,000 so he can make his construction bond payment of $439,000 for the county jail, which is due Nov. 1st. Commissioners also acted to pay down $3 million on the jail's principal debt of about $7.5 million, so the sheriff will be in a better position to make future bond payments.

In past years the county has had to bail the sheriff out, so he could make bond payments, and not put the county in default. The $3 million would come from a $6 million revenue fee account from the 3,000 bed ICE Unit.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to send a resolution to state and federal legislators expressing concern over recent firings of MTC workers at the 3,000 bed ICE Unit, due to a change in federal employment policies.

Of concern to Judge Protem Emilio "Junior" Vera and Commissioner Eddie Chapa are dozens of MTC employee being fired, because their personal credit scores are below a certain level.

"We've got a lot of good employees being fired," Vera said. "I spoke with an ICE official in San Antonio and said the county is concerned."

The county's unemployment rate was 21 percent before the ICE Unit was built, and had dropped to eight percent just before the policy change, according to the resolution.

The resolution states in part. "Willacy County ... is deeply concerned regarding policy changes ... that will negatively impact the retention of local workforce."

Employees at the ICE Unit sent a petition to U.S. Cong. Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi) several months asking for his help and intervention. Ortiz told the Chronicle/News is a prior interview that he was concerned as well.

In other county business, commissioners;

- Took no action on an employee action brought by District Attorney Juan Angel "Johnny" Guerra, during a closed executive session.

- Accepted a bid of a new auditing firm, Long and Shelton, whom Auditor Ida Martinez recommended.

- Approved a $23,375 legal services bill in the aggravated perjury case of suspended Willacy County Judge Eliseo "Cheyo" Barnhart; who has been ordered by Presiding District Judge J. Manuel Banales to repay the county for the cost of the special prosecutor who convicted him.

- Passed on the opportunity to apply for a $500,000 grant that would have rebuilt or repaired 8 to 12 houses in rural Willacy County.

- Agreed to make temporary repairs to the men's and women's bathroom at the courthouse, knowing the work may have to be redone when the building undergoes mold repairs.

- Allocated $2,000 for a retiree and employee appreciation dinner. The dinner will be held Dec. 12th, and will double as a Christmas Party.

On the $3 million county jail debt reduction, it was unclear who would negotiate on behalf of taxpayers with bond holder Michael Harling of Municipal Capital Markets, and what will be exactly be negotiated.

Earlier in the meeting Junior Vera quizzed Sheriff Spence why he could not make the bond payment. Spence explained that he has too many local prisoners languishing in the county jail, likely referring to a still broken criminal justice system.

"I need more paying federal prisoners," Spence explained.

Junior Vera strongly suggested the sheriff look into releasing the local inmates with electronic monitoring bracelets.

"I've checked on this and it works," Junior Vera said. "I'm thinking of the one prisoner, who were paying $500 for each (medical) injection," likely referring to career criminal Martin Mendoza, who is on a no bond for five petty felony charges.

In final action, Commissioners approved Constable Ben Vera's request for a new pickup truck not to exceed $24,000. Junior Vera, Ben's father, abstained from voting.

Ben Vera had only requested $19,000, however Commissioner Aurelio "Keeter" Guerra recommended the county start purchasing some 4WD vehicles, due to Hurricane Dolly experiences.

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