Justin Rodriguez meets with County staff in front of his new seat.
Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez greets County staff at his first meeting. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

Bexar County has set in motion a plan to clear a facility housing federal inmates in order to allow the University of Texas at San Antonio to proceed with downtown development plans.

County Commissioners on Tuesday approved a resolution to begin the process of terminating an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service to house federal detainees at the Central Texas Detention Facility, located on County property downtown and managed by private company GEO Group.

In October, commissioners approved a resolution to take “active steps” toward making the 2.6-acre parcel of land where the detention facility currently sits available for UTSA’s use.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said the agreement, in which the Marshals Service pays Bexar County to house detainees, and the County pays GEO Group to run the jail, allows the County to cancel within 30 days of providing the Marshals Service notice. But he promised to help Susan Pamerleau, who served as Bexar County sheriff for four years and in 2018 was named U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas, in transferring inmates from the downtown facility.

“We will work with the County and all that are involved to assure that we have adequate housing for federal prisoners and an orderly transfer of prisoners,” Pamerleau said.

According to County Manager David Smith, GEO Group has run the facility on Laredo Street for nearly 20 years. The company recently came under fire for its involvement in managing family detention centers.

But Wolff said the decision to end the agreement had nothing to do with GEO Group’s prior “political issues.” The County once made up to $5 million per year off this deal, but profit has since dipped to around $1 million a year, he said.

“We’re doing it because it absolutely doesn’t make any sense,” Wolff said. “And we want to move forward with UTSA project.”

UTSA is planning to develop its downtown campus and increase enrollment there to 15,000 students over the next 10 years. The university unveiled a $200 million plan in September to add the School of Data Science, a National Security Collaboration Center, and relocate the UTSA College of Business to the downtown campus.

GEO Group was also slated to begin renovations of the Bexar County Jail annex downtown to house more federal detainees later this year. But construction has not started, Wolff said, meaning neither GEO Group nor Bexar County have invested funds in that project yet.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said the deal to allow GEO Group to take over half of the jail’s annex for its own detainees may have made sense when it was first made in 2009, but circumstances have since changed.

“Maybe in years past that sounded like good idea, with the average jail population being 3,600 or so,” Salazar said. “Since I’ve taken office, jail population has been upwards of 4,100 last year and this year 4,200, with spikes up to 4,700 at times. That no longer makes that a good, sound decision for Bexar County.”

GEO Group taking over half of the county jail’s annex would force him to rent jail space for county prisoners, Salazar said. He said that his office’s analysis of the proposed annex takeover would have cost Bexar County between $8 million and $10 million.

Wolff also said that due to the shutdown, the federal government is not reimbursing the County for housing federal detainees.

“As each day passes with the shutdown and the president bragging about it because he wants a wall – which is 14th-century technology – we begin to see greater ramifications of his decisions, and we’re not being paid,” Wolff said.

Remembering Paul Elizondo

Commissioners convened their first meeting of 2019 with a welcome and a farewell. Justin Rodriguez attended his first session as a county commissioner, while Irene Elizondo accepted the Hidalgo award on behalf of her late husband, Rodriguez’s predecessor Paul Elizondo.

Wolff introduced Rodriguez as the new member of the court Tuesday morning, praising him for taking on responsibility so quickly.

“Justin Rodriguez hit the ground running on the very first day and has not slowed down since then,” Wolff said. “We are so grateful you have agreed to serve on this court and to bring another generation of leadership. We look forward to the next four years with you.”

Rodriguez said he was humbled to sit in Elizondo’s seat.

“Following in the footsteps of a giant like Paul Elizondo is not something I can fathom doing in one year or one term,” he said.

Commissioners also presented Elizondo’s wife Irene and two of his sons with the Hidalgo award, the commissioners court’s highest honor. Irene thanked them for the gift, adding that the highest honor she ever experiences was being married to Paul Elizondo for 55 years.

She presented Rodriguez with a photo of himself and Elizondo, framed and topped with a white ribbon, saying it symbolized the passing of the torch. She also thanked commissioners and the community for being supportive of her family in their days of mourning.

“The prayers are what are keeping me going,” she said. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart. My family, my sons thank you very much.”

Avatar photo

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.