County to stop accepting PA prisoners in spite of pending suit

Marilyn Tennissen Jan. 23, 2008, 5:45am

Jefferson County Commissioners Court

Jefferson County officials aren't waiting for a judge to decide if they have to continue to house certain prisoners for the city of Port Arthur.

Tuesday, Jan. 22, the Jefferson County Commissioners court notified Port Arthur that after Feb. 22 the prisoners will have to go somewhere else besides the Jefferson County jail.

The two entities have been in a dispute for years over payments for inmates with Class A and B misdemeanors and felonies who have not been formally charged by a judge.

Jefferson County claims Port Arthur has not paid what it owes the county to house the inmates, and filed a lawsuit against the city of Port Arthur last year. Port Arthur filed a counterclaim, alleging the county improperly amended the contract with the cities, has been overcharging for the jail service and owes Port Arthur a refund.

Although a trial date is expected in May in Judge Bob Wortham's 58th District Court, county commissioners notified Port Arthur officials that it was ending the service with Port Arthur in 30 days.

"There is a docket setting but it could be May or it could be June," Tom Rugg, attorney for Jefferson County, said at a meeting of the Jefferson County Commissioners Court. "And we can anticipate an appeal either way. We have to assume that we are years away from resolution (in the court)."

Rugg said numerous discussions with the city have not resolved the matter.

The commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to end the contract with Port Arthur. Waymon Hallmark, who as Precinct 3 Commissioner represents the residents of Port Arthur, voted against the proposal.

Since the cities within Jefferson County do not operate individual city jails, the county houses the city inmates for a fee. The dispute is over exactly which prisoners are considered city inmates and at what rate the city has to pay for use of the county jail.
In its lawsuit filed April 20, 2007, Jefferson County claims the services are governed by a contract to "house any and all prisoners, including but not limited to those who are arrested for committing Class A, B or C misdemeanors, as well as felonies."

The contract, dated Aug. 27, 2002, provided for a $52 per prisoner fee to be paid by each city, including Beaumont, Port Arthur, Nederland, Port Neches and Groves.

Port Arthur began paying the $52 fee for the Class C prisoners, but did not submit payments for felony and Class A and B misdemeanor inmates.

In 2004, county officials discovered that due to an error it had not been billing the cities for the A,B and felony inmates. Jefferson County claims that after being notified of the oversight all the cities have paid up, except for Port Arthur. Officials estimate Port Arthur owes Jefferson County more than $340,000.

But Port Arthur, represented by former state Rep. Carl Parker, fired back with a general denial and counterclaim in May 2007. The city alleges that not only does it not owe any fees to Jefferson County, but in fact the county owes it a refund.

The city claims the binding contract is one dated April 16, 1991. In that contract, a city prisoner is defined as "… a person who is arrested by city peace officers and is charged with one or more Class C misdemeanors in the Municipal Court of the city and is not charged with any Class B or A misdemeanor or felony and is presented by a city police officer at the Jefferson County Jail for incarceration."

The contract called for a fee of $44 per day, or $11 for each 6-hour segment of time, not $52 per prisoner.

If that contract is still binding, that means that Jefferson County has been overcharging the cities for housing prisoners.

"Because of the overcharge and overpayment, the county is withholding funds from the Port Arthur and its taxpayers of at least $200,000," Parker wrote for Port Arthur.

Parker also argues that in August 2002 the county violated contract terms and the Texas Open Meetings Act.

"The contract between the City and County ran from year to year, renewable each year unless specifically canceled by one of the parties," the city's counterclaim states. "City would show that neither the City nor the County has ever canceled the contract."

According to the counterclaim, the Port Arthur city manager received a letter "announcing Commissioners Court had approved a change in the contract between the parties and that beginning Oct. 1, 2002, additional charges would be made against the City."

"The City refused at the time and still refuses to accept a unilateral amendment to the contract negotiated between the parties to this lawsuit," the counterclaim states.

Port Arthur officials are asking that the court void the county's attempt to unilaterally amend the contract on the grounds the meeting at which action was taken by the Commissioners Court was not properly posted, adequate notice was not given as to the purpose of the meeting and a copy of the proposed amendment was not provided.

"Additionally, the City would show to the court that a binding contract cannot be unilaterally altered by one party alone," the counterclaim states.

Parker also argues that the purported "new contract" failed to "properly identify which prisoners would be considered city prisoners."

"The city would show that traditionally throughout the state, felonious acts and serious misdemeanors are the responsibility of the state, via the county, which is a subdivision of the State of Texas," the city's counterclaim states.

Port Arthur has been willing to let a judge sort out the dispute and is continuing with the discovery process in the lawsuit. On Nov. 30, 2007, the city filed a certificate of written discovery directed to plaintiff.

But fearing the wheels of justice might be turning a little too slowly, Jefferson County gave 30-day notice to Port Arthur that it will no longer accept the city's prisoners. Port Arthur officials are considering options that include renovating buildings to house their own prisoners or making sure that every arrestee is magistrated.

Case No. A179-146

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