County drops prisoner-housing litigation after PA pays up

Marilyn Tennissen Jul. 8, 2008, 10:00am

After more than a year of legal battling, the controversy over payment for housing municipal prisoners came to an end when the city of Port Arthur paid Jefferson County more than $257,000.

On July 7, Jefferson County Commissioners agreed to dismiss litigation against the city.

In February, the two entities agreed that Port Arthur would pay 75 percent of what it owed for city prisoners who were incarcerated in the Jefferson County Correctional Facility and charged with Class A and B misdemeanor or some felonies. The county agreed to drop the lawsuit against Port Arthur once it received the check.

As reported in previous stories by the Southeast Texas Record, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Nederland, Groves and Port Neches stopped operating city jails, and have been using the Jefferson County jail for city prisoners since 1991.

But the county got into a dispute with the city of Port Arthur over payment for inmates with Class A and B misdemeanors and felonies who have not been formally charged by a judge.

Jefferson County claimed Port Arthur had not paid what it owed the county to house the inmates, and filed a lawsuit against the city.

Port Arthur filed a counterclaim, alleging the county improperly amended the contract with the cities, had been overcharging for the jail service and owed Port Arthur a refund.

In its lawsuit filed April 20, 2007, Jefferson County claimed 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 the cities in Jefferson County.

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 claimed that after being notified of the oversight all the cities paid up, except for Port Arthur. Officials estimated that Port Arthur owed Jefferson County more than $340,000.

But Port Arthur, represented by former state Sen. Carl Parker, fired back with a general denial and counterclaim in May 2007. The city alleged that not only did it not owe any fees to Jefferson County, the county actually owed it a refund.

The city claimed that the binding contract between the two was 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.

Parker argued that if that contract is still binding, then Jefferson County had been overcharging the cities and owed Port Arthur at least $200,000.

The case was likely to come to trial in Judge Bob Wortham's 58th District Court this summer, but in February the county felt like the matter was years away from resolution, and gave notice to Port Arthur that it would no longer accept the city's prisoners.

The entities soon negotiated an agreement and under a new contract the city began paying the county $52 per day for city prisoners. But Jefferson County said it would not drop the lawsuit until it had the check from Port Arthur in hand.

Case No. A179-146

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