New jail coming

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Socorro County is getting ready to build its new jail, and the County Commission discussed preparations during its regular meeting Tuesday.

Socorro County voters approved the jail bond measure 3,335 to 2,470 in the general election Nov. 6.

The measure allows the county to issue up to $5 million of general obligation bonds to design, build, expand, equip and otherwise improve county jail facilities. The bonds will be repaid with property taxes collected in the county.

During an interview Tuesday morning before the commission meeting, county manager Delilah Walsh said she is glad voters saw the need for a new detention center in the county. She said it was not unexpected as the county did a survey a few months ago to see if voters would support such a measure.

“We got a really overwhelming amount of support when we went through the survey process,” Walsh said. “So we didn’t have to spend money trying to convince voters … we’re doing exactly what they’re OK with.”

Walsh said next the county must meet with the city of Socorro about a site location. The county’s immediate goals, she said, are to secure a building site, get the bonds sold and issue a request for proposals to get an architect to design and manage the project. She said the county has been talking to the city about a site in the industrial park area.

“The city is what can make this happen because if we have to buy land, that may not be feasible,” Walsh said. “But if we can work something with the city, if we can lease the land maybe … or if they donate the land to the county.”

Walsh said the biggest concern to commissioners is to build the new jail without increasing property taxes. She said the county will raise $5 million through bond sales and already has another $2 million in its general fund to put into the project. She said the county must keep costs under that $7 million.

“The potential sites are in the city’s industrial park, because that’s the most cost effective for us to actually get the project done,” Walsh said. “If we have to buy land, that’s not enough money. Plus with the industrial park, the utilities are already there — the infrastructure.”

Walsh said anywhere else, the county would have to run gas lines, water lines and sewer lines, which would be an added expense.

The current old jail is not at all adequate, Walsh said. The layout is not functional for the staff; everything happens in the booking room. Visitation is right next to the booking room, inmates have their telephone calls in the booking room, and of course bookings and check-ins take place in the booking room. She said in the new jail, those processes will have their own separate areas and detainees won’t be having contact with the public.

Walsh said there are not enough beds for the county’s detention needs; there are 55, but the jail must leave 10 to 20 percent open for booking purposes just to be functional.

With so little room, Walsh said all of the women detainees — and some men when there is overflow — are sent to the McKinley County jail in Gallup. She explained the women must be kept in a separate pod. Since there are fewer female detainees, their pod would have empty beds, which can’t be justified when the facility is already too small to accommodate the county’s needs.

Walsh said housing detainees at the McKinley County facility costs $52 per day per detainee. She said Socorro County contracts with McKinley because it is the least expensive; rates can be as high as $175 per day.

During a tour of the tiny jail Thursday, Evangelo Maldonado, detention center administrator, said women detainees must stay in the visiting room until they can be transported to Gallup. He pointed out this is a risk since little can be done if there are two women feuding who are detainees at the same time.

“We don’t have any way to separate them,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado also lamented there is no way to separate two feuding detainees who are being booked at the same time. He said they must keep one in the car with an officer, which puts the officer at risk, while the first detainee is booked.

Maldonado, whose office is in an old jail cell, also said there is no room in the jail for administrative offices.

Another of the jail’s shortcomings, according to Walsh, is no programming; there is no secure classroom for detainees to work toward a GED, attend Alcoholics Anonymous or benefit from other self-improvement programs.

“We want to be able to give our inmates programming,” Walsh said. “We want them to be able to build healthy relationships with family members through visitation. And you can’t do that here, or in another county.”

She noted the trip to Gallup takes about two and a half hours, which creates a hardship for families and friends who want to visit.

Walsh said the county’s goal is to build a 100-bed facility. She said the county needs to be able to house 75 inmates, and then have 25 beds for segregation and booking purposes.

“We don’t expect to fill 100 beds,” Walsh said.

Walsh said they will only have to increase staff by one guard for the new facility. The jail currently employs 11 guards, according to Maldonado.

Addressing commissioners during the regular meeting Tuesday, Walsh estimated it could be March 2014 before the county actually breaks ground on the new jail. Walsh said it will take about three months to get an architect for the project, three months for design and three months to secure a contractor — but before all of that, the bonds must be sold.

“It’s a big project, and it’s a long project,” Walsh said.

Mark Valenzuela, vice president of George K. Baum & Company and the county’s financial adviser, said the bond funding is generally a three-month process. He said interest rates are unbelievably low, in fact “historically low” at 3.25 percent. He said the rate will be locked in when the bonds actually go to market, adding he doesn’t expect the rate to change much if at all.

“It’s a good time to be a bond issuer,” Valenzuela said. “Not such a great time to be an investor — but certainly, from your standpoint, it’s a great time.”

Walsh noted the county had considered holding a special election to lock in those low interest rates, but the Federal Reserve froze the rates so the county is still able to take advantage of historic low rates without the added expense of a special election.

Valenzuela said Socorro County has a triple A credit rating, which is the highest credit quality.

“Socorro County is very well managed … There is only a few (counties) in New Mexico that have the triple A compared to the single A category,” Valenzuela said.

Chris Muirhead, bond counsel for the county, outlined the calendar schedule for processing the bond. Muirhead is employed with Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris and Sisk law firm in Albuquerque, and he explained the firm ensures such transactions are done in legal compliance with all rules and regulations.

Muirhead said the calendar has Jan. 8, 2013, down as the date the commission will adopt its award resolution, so the interest rates will be locked in on that date. In terms of getting ready for the sale of the bonds, he said the county will pass its first notice of sale resolution Dec. 11, which authorizes publication of the bond sale.

“In between there, there is a lot going on to get ready for that,” Muirhead said. “Primarily, the offering document that is prepared that is necessary for compliance with SEC rules.”

He explained investors want to know as much as possible about the county, its credit, the property taxes that will pay off the bond and so on.

Muirhead said barring any unforeseen delays, the deal should close Feb. 14, 2013 — “a Valentine’s gift.”