The county’s treasurer is concerned taxpayers could be forced to repay construction bonds on the new jail if the company hired to run it cannot.
While the company that evaluates the credit risks of proposed bonds agrees with this view, confusion remains among county officials over whether the county will have to pay for a facility that was to be built at no cost to taxpayers.
This of course, was both predictable and predicted on this blog back in 2008 when they made the deal. The attorney for the county is claiming the taxpayers are not liable if the public corporation which formally issued the bonds can't pay them, that the bonds could just default and local taxpayers would have no obligation to pay them. But:
James Breeding, director of Standard & Poors Rating Services in Dallas, said the bond documents imply that the county would cover bond payments if housing revenues fell short.
“The way the documents were structured and the way we rated it was that the county would step in with other funds, if necessary,” he said. ...
The rating attached to new bonds signals how risky the investment would be to potential bond purchasers. Standard & Poors Rating Services gave the McLennan County Public Facility Corp. a AA- rating for the jail project.
The company cited McLennan County’s tax base, previous financial performance, and low debt load as evidence of the project’s “general trustworthiness” and “rating stability.”
Gilbreath said the county’s rating was used to show investors that the bonds were secure investments.
“If I’m going to buy one of those bonds, I’m not just going to look at the entity that’s issuing it,” Gilbreath said. “I’m going to look at the deep pockets behind it, and thereby make a more informed decision about the credit worthiness of the bonds I’m buying.”
Breeding said if the project goes into default, the county’s bond rating in future projects would be affected.
As predictable as the sunrise, yet everyone involved in the deal swore it wouldn't happen, even though it was evident back in August 2008 that the deal's finances were suspect. I wrote on Grits at the time:
I was interested and curious to see that the vendor chosen, private prison operator CEC Corp., promised to house inmates at an astonishingly low rate of about $25 per day, about $15-20 below what it cost most counties and other contractors to operate a jail. Likely they're hoping to make up the difference by housing high-dollar federal immigration detainees, but that's a speculative bet on the future, not a sure thing. I have to wonder if the $25 per day figure is a real, sustainable number or if it will increase once the jail is built and the charges become a fait accompli.
Of course, a low-balled price means nothing if they can't find any inmates to fill the jail, at any price.
For me over the last couple of years, watching this McLennan County private jail project has been like observing a train wreck in slow motion, the outcome was so obvious but the engineer just kept plowing forward. The local deputies' union opposed the deal, as did the statewide labor group CLEAT, and this blog openly predicted this worst-case outcome and suggested alternative approaches to reduce overcrowding without risky new jail building. All the while, though, private prison boosters in and out of government forged ahead with a scheme that's going bust before it ever even gets off the ground, with the private prison company immune from liability and taxpayers on the hook for debt service on the empty jail.
It's been said there is no such thing as a free lunch. Similarly, there's certainly no such thing as a free jail, no matter what kind of hype the salesmen and politicians put forth on the front end These projects socialize risks for local government's corporate partners while privatizing profits when such ventures succeed. Too many counties are already stuck with such arrangements, at least for a while, but given current market conditions and iconic failures like the new McLennan jail, it'd be foolhardy for others to replicate their mistakes.
RELATED: From Texas Prison Bidness, "CEC's Jack Harwell detention center in Waco sits empty."