Riot brings financial crisis

RAYMONDVILLE — Some top stories of the year are quick hitting and remain in the headlines a short period of time.

Others leave lasting effects in their wake.

Willacy County experienced the latter in 2015.

An inmate uprising destroyed much of the so-called tent-city prison, plunging Willacy County into an economic crisis that will continue to unfold in 2016.

On Feb. 20, complaints over medical care led about 2,000 prisoners to riot, setting fire to tent-like domes at the Willacy County Correctional Center.

The destruction left the prison “uninhabitable,” leading officials to transfer 2,834 inmates before shutting down the prison that cost $60 million when it opened in 2006.

By mid-March, the Federal Bureau of Prisons terminated its contract to hold inmates in the prison, which had paid the county for every inmate it held.

The prison’s closure slashed $2.7 million from the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget, leaving the county with a monthly revenue shortfall of $220,000.

To try to offset the loss of revenue, county commissioners cut 25 jobs, forcing 16 layoffs. Nine positions remained vacant.

“It’s very difficult,” Commissioner Eduardo Gonzales said in October. “These are the ripple effects of the prison closure.”

After deep budget cuts, county commissioners approved a $7.3 million general fund budget.

County Judge Aurelio Guerra described the budget as part of a “two-year plan.”

During the coming year, commissioners are counting on the prison’s insurance policy to make more payments, Guerra said.

He said business interruption insurance reimburses revenue losses for a period of up to a year.

Without the prison’s insurance money, commissioners would cut as much as “a few hundred thousand dollars” off the county’s next general fund budget under a “worst-case scenario,” Guerra said.

In Raymondville, the closure of the 3,000-bed prison led city commissioners to slash about $600,000 to offset a plunge in water sales.

As a result, officials postponed a $325,000 street improvement project.

But they set aside $104,000 for street repairs.

“We’ll be patching potholes, that’s what sure,” Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said.

Meanwhile, county officials and Management & Training Corp., or MTC, the company that operated the prison since it opened, continue to search for a customer to fill the prison.

Officials are counting on the Bureau of Prisons to accept MTC’s proposal to hold inmates at the prison.

MTC has offered to accept the Bureau of Prison’s request for a company to operate a 1,200- to 2,000-bed “low-security” prison.

The Bureau of Prisons has proposed that a company hold male “criminal aliens” with about 90 months or less remaining on their sentences in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico or Oklahoma.

The Bureau of Prisons is expected to respond to proposals by MTC and other prison operators by April 2017.

Guerra said officials also are counting on E.ON Climate & Renewables to build 115 wind turbines in the San Perlita area in 2017.

The wind farm operator is expected to pay the county $458,000 a year during a 10-year period.