RAYMONDVILLE — Julia Urbina is counting on Willacy County’s prison deal to help friends who lost their jobs when the former “tent-city” closed more than two years ago.
“If it’s more jobs, that would be good,” Urbina, a retired school worker, said yesterday.
In this farming area, prisons and school districts pay some of the area’s highest wages, Urbina said while eating lunch at Las Mañanitas Restaurant here.
“We need more jobs here,” she said. “You either work for the school or the prison. That’s about it.”
On March 10, county commissioners sold the 53-acre prison to Management and Training Corp., a national prison operator that ran the facility since it opened in 2006.
Commissioner Oscar DeLuna has put the prison’s sale price at $68 million, the amount of the debt owed to its bond holders.
But County Judge Aurelio Guerra said he did not yet have a specific sale price.
Instead, Guerra estimated the price ranged from $60 million to $68 million, citing the facility’s $6.9 million reserve fund and questions surrounding business interruption insurance payments.
Meanwhile, MTC has declined to disclose the sale price.
“We are not disclosing the details of the purchase,” Sergio Molina, the company’s vice president for business development and administration, said yesterday in a statement.
As part of the deal, an agreement will pay the county $3 a day for every inmate held in the prison’s existing 1,000-bed concrete housing unit.
Guerra said the deal is expected to create about 275 jobs.
Meanwhile, MTC is searching for a customer for whom to hold inmates.
Officials expect the facility to become a detention center holding undocumented immigrants.
MTC’s prospective customers include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is interested in the facility.
Guerra said President Donald Trump’s push to deport undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes helped drive the deal.
The sale will put the property on the tax roles, potentially generating $1.5 million to $2 million in annual tax revenue for the county’s taxing entities, including the city of Raymondville and the school district, Guerra said.
Guerra said the sale is expected to bring the county $350,000 to $450,000 in annual property tax revenue.
But questions surround the property’s taxable value.
At Raymondville City Hall, City Manager Eleazar Garcia is waiting for the appraisal of the property previously tax-exempt.
Garcia said the property would generate tax revenues equal to about one-third of Raymondville’s current total valuation of $166 million — if it is appraised at $68 million.
Guerra is counting on the deal to help pull the county out of hard times.
In February 2015, the closure of the 3,000-bed prison, which paid the county for every inmate it held, led to 400 employee layoffs, slashing a third of the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget and plunging the area into financial crisis.
Then in January 2016, Walmart closed its Raymondville Superstore, laying off 149 employees.
Esmeralda Perez said many area residents who lost jobs now travel to other cities to work.
“It’s been hard,” Perez, a manager at a fast-food restaurant, said at a table at Las Mañanitas. “They closed the prison and the Walmart. People had to work far away. They really need that to open to have jobs here.”
Rosalinda Najera hopes MTC lands a contract with a government agency, which would pay significantly higher wages than other area employers.
“Government jobs are real hard to come by,” said Najera, a Lasara teacher. “It’s going to boost the economy — a lot of work for people. Here, if you’ve got a job, you’re going to keep it, even if you travel very, very far.”
Marcus Galle said the area needs higher-paying jobs such as those the facility could offer.
“There’s not too many big-ticket jobs in this county,” Galle, a Raymondville area farmer, said as he spoke with others at his table. “It’s mostly agriculture here and that doesn’t pay the bills.”
Tony Saldivar said he hopes the jobs would go to Willacy County residents.
Officials estimate about half of the tent-city prison’s 400 jobs went to workers who lived outside the county.
“Hopefully they’ll stay local, from the whole of Willacy County,” said Saldivar, an electrician from Lyford. “That should bring revenue back into this county.”