As prison closure nears, county officials feud

As the clock ticks closer to the Sept. 23 closure set by CoreCivic of its Estancia prison, disagreements are flaring between the sheriff and the chairman of the Torrance County commission.

Sheriff Heath White surprised organizers of a community meeting Monday when he told the 50 or so people that the meeting was in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

White said that commission chairman Javier Sanchez had organized the meeting as the county chairman, and discussed county business; Sanchez contends that the meeting was a community meeting and that he was acting as a member of the public, not representing the county.

According to Sanchez, White said his piece and “stormed out” of the meeting.

For his part, White said Sanchez was disseminating misinformation and getting people’s hopes up unnecessarily.

At issue is the impending closure of the prison facility, which until recently employed more than 200 people with some of the better-paying jobs in the county.

The loss of revenue will be staggering to the small town of Estancia, for which gross receipts taxes and other income from the prison facility amounted to 60 percent of the town’s total budget.

For Torrance County, the biggest hit will be to the sheriff’s department. Under state law, the county sheriff is responsible for housing and transporting prisoners arrested within its terrain—even those prisoners arrested by other agencies such as state police.

White had proposed to the county commission shortly after CoreCivic’s announcement that he be given the budget to hire six new transport deputies in addition to the two he already has. That’s because prisoners will now most likely need to be transported to Grants—a 3-hour drive one way, which will take a deputy off the streets for seven hours for every prisoner arrested.

He was instead given the budget to hire two additional transport deputies.

Sanchez voted against that move but was overridden by the commission as whole.

While Sanchez maintains that meetings with state officials have been unproductive, White said, “They have not left us out to dry as Javier [Sanchez] told the public last night that all communications have stopped. We were talking to them last night.”

The town of Estancia plans to send a letter to the state corrections department to see if any state prisoners might be housed at the prison there, but White said the state can’t simply transfer inmates because the prison is privately owned, meaning that any such move must go through an extensive bid process.

“The letters that they proposed last night are very demanding … things we’ve already talked about that we know we can’t make happen. It puts Torrance County in a bad light.”

White also objects to Sanchez’ idea that citizens of Torrance County “protest on the steps of the Roundhouse.”

“To get people fired up to start calling when they have been working with us non-stop to come up with some type of solution … it is unfair to say that, and not have those people there to defend themselves when they have been working so hard with us,” White said.

Estancia Mayor Sylvia Chavez agreed with Sanchez that the meeting was not a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Both the town of Estancia and Torrance County issued a “notice of possible quorum” for the meeting, stating that there could be a quorum of its members in attendance of the meeting; that is a standard notice to make, and does comply with the Open Meetings Act.

Chavez said that state legislators have been instrumental in helping set up meetings at the state level and have been very responsive to the community, and she said the state’s Congressional delegation has been helpful also.

“My strategy is, do I just sit back and take for face value what the’ve told me, or are there some more bushes I can beat around to get a firm answer about if they can help us,” she said. “Whether we get the same answer we got from the governor’s office, at least I know I exhausted every avenue possible.”

Estancia could be forced to close its police department if the facility doesn’t reopen within a year, she said, and the town is now under a hiring freeze and will soon consider cuts to its existing budget.

Chavez said the last payment the town is likely to get from CoreCivic’s gross receipts taxes will be next month.

“We’re going to look really tightly at our budget, and schedule a special meeting after that to implement some changes,” she said.

One idea that has been suggested is that the state take over the facility, but Chavez said that would not help Estancia because the state would pay no property taxes or gross receipts taxes if it did.

Sanchez said his suggestion, which was not adopted by the county, was to create a committee of all department heads in the county and other interested parties, to determine more comprehensively the impact to the county as a whole. He said White’s Monday “outburst” was “out of left field,” adding, “The sheriff for his part went up to the podium and announced that it was an illegal meeting. … It was almost like he was lying in wait, then sprung the outburst—I don’t know what for or what motive.”

Sanchez said his intention is to “recharge the discussion” about possible ways to keep the facility open, or to reopen it after closure.

White said Sanchez is “not up to speed” on the issues. “The time clock is running out and we have to have the preparations in place. When he voted no for additional resources to the sheriff’s office—I don’t understand that.”

With his department already short-staffed, the sheriff fears that the additional workload on deputies will mean that the county has trouble with recruitment and retention of officers, and that overtime costs will overtake what it would cost to hire additional help. “That workload is going to be there day one when that facility closes down. I’m very nervous about what’s going to happen here real soon because I haven’t been given the resources to do my state statutory duties.”