May 19, 2021 151 PM
PRESIDIO COUNTY – In addition to discussing appointing a new health authority, the Presidio County Commissioners Court made a deal with a contractor to negotiate a better per diem rate with the U.S. Marshals Service and then weighed in on whether to support the bill that would see Sul Ross move to another school system.
Below are some of the major topics the commissioners chewed over:
New health authority
One of the first items on the agenda was whether to appoint a new local Presidio County health authority, as Dr. John Paul Schwartz’s term is coming to a close. While County Judge Cindy Guevara said that Dr. Schwartz is willing to serve another term, Commissioner Buddy Knight suggested that the county turn over control to the state, through the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Knight brought up that Brewster County did so after its local health authority, Dr. Ekta Escovar, resigned in part due to harassment from members of the public. “Her life was threatened over decisions she made or helped make,” he said. “I believe if we use the Texas Department of Health, we take the politics out of it. Any politics.”
While Justice of the Peace David Beebe said he wasn’t advocating for either decision, he did offer his two cents. “When you do cede the power to the state, you remove your local control. And that does take the politics out of it. It also takes the policy out of it,” he said. “I’m just gonna say people have appointed you all to be in charge here, you can pass the buck. I’m not saying it’s the right or the wrong thing. I’m just saying if you want to maintain local control, you have to keep local control.”
Guevara pushed back slightly, saying that the health authority –– whether local or not –– has to enforce any and all regulations set by the commissioners court. Commissioners Jose Cabezuela, Eloy Aranda and Brenda Bentley all wanted to hear from the public, particularly local medical workers, before making the decision, and Guevara tabled the item for the next commissioners court on May 26.
U.S. Marshals contract
The court next discussed whether to hire a contractor to negotiate a new per diem rate with the U.S. Marshals Service in regards to housing federal inmates in the county jail. Under the current contract signed in October 2010, the county gets paid $65 per day for each federal inmate detained in the jail. The contractor, Joseph Summerill, estimated a new rate of $78, which he says is a conservative number. “It is likely your rate could end up in the $80 range, which is not unheard of in West Texas,” he said.
If bumped up to a $78 per diem, the county would generate around $25,000 extra per month without the jail having to change its operations in any way, according to Summerill. This new rate would bring in an additional million dollars to the county’s coffers over the life of the agreement, which is 36 months.
According to the county jail administrator, Graciela Parras, the jail is currently housing around 60 federal inmates, but that number can go up to 90. She said that many of these inmates have been brought in from Homeland Security Investigations agents or Border Patrol agents for crimes related to immigration, like human smuggling.
Summerill said his fee is based off of the difference between what the county would make for 90 days following the execution of the new agreement. So if the county’s new per diem were $13 more than what it currently is, Summerill would get $13 per inmate over 90 days. If the number of inmates were to hover around 60 over those 90 days, the county would pay Summerill around $70,000.
Guevara said that negotiating a new per diem rate with the U.S. Marshals Service is an extremely arduous process that can be avoided by contracting with Summerill’s company, which has conducted hundreds of them. Guevara also said the jail administrator and the sheriff were on board with the proposal. The court agreed and passed the motion.
The council then debated whether to support House Bill 2332, which would transfer Sul Ross State University out of the Texas State University system and into the Texas A&M University system. Even though the bill hasn’t moved much through the legislature, Commissioner Knight wanted to send a message, through a resolution, that the county supported the move. Knight said, “I don’t think you can defend the [Texas State University] system and what they have done to us out here in West Texas.”
In the resolution, the county asked for Pete Gallego to remain president and be given a sufficient amount of time to prepare for the transition.
One Marfa resident, David Marwitz, urged the court to postpone the resolution until the next legislative session. In the meantime, he suggested the court invite representatives from A&M and other school systems, like the Texas Tech University system, to see what they are willing to do for Sul Ross.
Marwitz also wondered if the Texas A&M system would be the best fit for Sul Ross. “If you go back and look at the Texas A&M system, and where they have developed their colleges, it’s along the I-35 corridor and urban areas,” he said. “Are they going to want to put money in here, or are they going to want to funnel students to where they already have facilities?”
The court passed a motion to postpone this item until the May 26 meeting and to consider another resolution that doesn’t tie the county to the Texas A&M system.
The court also agreed to help fund the purchase of a new ambulance in Presidio using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, Presidio EMS Director Malynda Richardson secured $150,000 in funding for a new ambulance, and the city pledged to cover the rest of the cost, which could range from $31,000 to $75,000. The court did not specify how much money it would give toward the new emergency vehicle.