Commissioners tackle jail issues

Robin Fornoff

A sometimes frustrating nine-hour marathon meeting of Curry County commissioners ended with what seemed like more questions than answers for fixing problems at the troubled jail.

County Manager Lance Pyle presented commissioners with a lengthy report of problems needing immediate attention at the jail, most of them costly. He also suggested several ways of paying for them, including extending the 2001 bond issue used to finance the Curry County Events Center.

Pyle said the county could raise the cash by refunding the 2001 bonds, issuing new ones and extending the maturity date. He said doing so would require approval by county voters, but could raise as much as $9.3 million without adding any new taxes.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a $33 million bond issue proposed in 2010 to help pay for a new courthouse and jail complex.

Pyle’s other suggestions included entering a long-term lease-purchase agreement with a private entity willing to pay the costs of building a new jail, borrowing from the New Mexico Finance Authority or dipping into county reserve funds.

Among the litany of problems at the jail cited by Pyle:

• An outdated communication system. The jail’s base station is a modified vehicle radio. Hand-held radios used by detention officers and command staff aren’t powerful enough to penetrate walls inside the jail, making communication difficult or non-existent in some cases. It is also limited to two frequencies, one for the adult and one for the juvenile detention center, leaving no emergency frequency.

• Emergency backup deficiencies are rampant. During a Nov. 26 power outage, door locks inside the jail failed to switch to emergency power as did the computers controlling locks throughout the jail. Camera monitors also failed as did computer networking switches controlling locks and cameras in the separate women’s section of the jail.

• Numerous blind spots using existing cameras and monitors inside the jail. Pyle suggested 36 new cameras were needed along with other equipment at a projected cost of more than $38,000.

At first, Chairman Caleb Chandler tried addressing individually each of the many concerns Pyle presented.

“I think we’ve got to get these things fixed,” said Chandler. “It’s got to be the top priority.”

But as Chandler worked his way through the list, the frustrations boiled over.

Commissioner Bobby Sandoval said piecemeal fixes at the jail were simply putting a Band-Aid on a larger problem.

“The fact is we have a minimum security facility that wasn’t built to house the kind of maximum security guys we’re getting in there now,” said Sandoval.

“It seems like we’re always behind the game or putting a Band-Aid on it,” said Commissioner Wendell Bostwick. “I’d like to get ahead of the game.”

The debate turned to the possibility of renovating the existing facility or building a new one, then turned quickly to how to get proposals on building a new jail.

Commissioner Dan Stoddard, however, bristled at the suggestion of any kind of new facility.

“I’d like to see some numbers first,” said Stoddard. “I want to know where the money is coming from. I want to make sure we have the money to run it once it’s built.”

Stoddard’s remarks brought a caution from Commissioner Frank Blackburn, who said the bottom line was the safety of residents, not necessarily the cost of building a new facility.

“It’s about the safety of citizens,” said Blackburn. “It’s increased security for our community.”

Polling each commissioner for a consensus agreement, Chandler instructed Pyle and Finance Director Mark Lansford to seek a variety of proposals on a possible new facility.