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County working on compromise with Beaumont/PA over jail fee dispute

JEFFERSON COUNTY — KFDM/Fox 4 News has learned Jefferson County and the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur are working out a compromise on a hotly contested dispute about jail fees that has gone on for years.

At the end of September, the county sent a letter to the cities, stating it would terminate the long-running agreement to house prisoners from those cities, effective November 1.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick tells KFDM/Fox 4 the county agreed to a grace period while the parties worked out a compromise, allowing the cities to continue sending prisoners to the Jefferson County Correctional Facility.

The agenda for the Tuesday commissioner’s court meeting includes a possible vote on the compromise:

(k) Consider, possibly approve, authorize the County Judge to execute an Interlocal between Jefferson County and the City of Beaumont.

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(l) Consider, possibly approve, authorize the County Judge to execute an Interlocal between Jefferson County and the City of Port Arthur, Texas.

The issue stems from a long-running dispute between Beaumont, Port Arthur and the County centering on the cost of housing prisoners and when the prisoners become the responsibility of the county. The county says it’s the cities’ responsibility as soon as a prisoner is arraigned. The cities argue it’s their responsibility only after the District Attorney’s Office has filed formal charges, which can be much later. The issue led to a lawsuit filed in 2016 that continues to this day.

“I think we figured out something that benefits all parties,” Judge Branick told KFDM/Fox 4. “It’s mutually advantageous. It takes care of the county’s concerns. We’ll bite off a larger piece of paying for city-arrested inmates. Beaumont and Port Arthur will pay slightly more. Nobody got everything they wanted. It’s the nature of compromise. They’ll have a limit on how long they have to pay for the inmate. Commissioners will discuss the compromise and it’s on the agenda for a vote.”

Story from September 28:

Jefferson County Commissioners have voted unanimously to allow County Judge Jeff Branick to send a letter to Beaumont and Port Arthur, terminating the long-running agreement to house prisoners from those cities, effective November 1.

The issue stems from a long-running dispute between Beaumont, Port Arthur and the County centering on the cost of housing prisoners and when the prisoners become the responsibility of the county. The county says it’s the cities’ responsibility as soon as a prisoner is arraigned. The cities argue it’s their responsibility only after the District Attorney’s Office has filed formal charges, which can be much later. The issue led to a lawsuit filed in 2016 that continues to this day. A hearing is set for October.

County Auditor Patrick Swain says the cost of housing prisoners has risen to about $115 per day. He says the county has only been charging $55 per day and Beaumont is paying only 35% of that.

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A news release from the City of Beaumont states Jefferson County is the only one of the 254 counties in Texas that wants to handle city prisoners in this manner.

City Manager Kyle Hayes says Hardin and Chambers Counties don’t charge cities for housing prisoners. He says they know it’s the county’s responsibility. Beaumont Council is scheduled to talk about the issue Tuesday in Executive Session.

Hardin County confirms it doesn’t charge cities to house prisoners.

Chambers County also confirms it doesn’t charge for housing city prisoners.

“Police departments are an extension of the Sheriff,” says Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne. “Citizens pay County taxes, so why would they pay separately to house city prisoners?”

KFDM/Fox 4 spoke with County Judge Jeff Branick about the dispute, prior to Tuesday’s vote.

“There are a variety of options for Beaumont and Port Arthur,” said Judge Branick. “We had a contract that worked well for 26 years. Then somebody decided they didn’t want to comply. We tried to work on it for at least ten years, since 2010. We haven’t been able to resolve it. We had a difference of opinion. We have a contract and they’re not complying. The other cities, Nederland, Groves, Port Neches, are complying. It worked for 26 years and all of a sudden it didn’t? We’re only charging them for less than half of our actual costs. They’re only paying 35% of the half we’re charging them of costs, and it’s been that way since 2011. We’re more than fair. We don’t want to do it any more. Commissioners Court will consider the issue Tuesday.”

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In a lawsuit the county filed in 2016, the county stated that Beaumont and Port Arthur “erroneously contend” that its prisoners are “committed” to the county jail’s custody and no longer are the city’s responsibility once they have appeared before a magistrate.

But the suit asserted the prisoners are not actually committed to the county jail until after the filing of formal charges by the district attorney, which can be much later.

We spoke with Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie for comment.

“I want to get with the Chief of Police, City Manager and City Attorney to work out an equitable agreement with the county,” said Mayor Bartie. “I hope they don’t stop accepting our prisoners immediately.I wasn’t mayor when the agreement was signed, I hope they let us work things out.”

Written by KFDM/FOX4

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