BY DINA ARÉVALO, Staff writer
MERCEDES — The city of Mercedes moved one step closer Tuesday to formalizing an agreement between its police department and Weslaco to house Mercedes jail detainees at the Weslaco city jail.
It was a partnership borne out of necessity. Conditions at the dilapidated Mercedes city jail building had deteriorated so far that housing detainees there had become untenable. Among the issues were a faulty air conditioning system, as well as odors emanating from the jail’s sewer system.
“When you’re in a contained area — yes, they’re detainees, but they’re people, too,” Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala said. “They should not be subjected to a muggy, humid, high odor, stenched (sic) area.”
As a result, Olga Maldonado — then the chief of police — reached out to her neighbors to the west for help in temporarily housing Mercedes’ detainees.
Approximately two months later, plans are in the works to revamp the Mercedes police department — including a move to new building — but conditions at the current building remain unsafe for holding detainees, necessitating a more formal arrangement with the Weslaco police department.
“I think it’s best for both cities so that way everything is written on a paper,” Zavala said shortly after a special meeting during which the city commission unanimously approved the language of a memorandum of understanding to be proffered to Weslaco for its approval.
According to the terms of an amended version of the MOU, Mercedes would pay Weslaco $27 per 12-hour increment that Weslaco houses a Mercedes detainee.
The city of Weslaco had originally asked for $54 per 24-hour period; however, Zavala wondered aloud at the fairness of paying $54 for a person held in custody for 30 minutes versus one who is held a full day.
Speaking after the meeting, the city manager acknowledged the “stewardship” service Weslaco is providing the Mercedes, saying such service merits paying the cost of providing it. “My personal belief is if there is a service, there should be a fee. And we will justly pay it,” Zavala said.
The amended MOU will, in turn, have to be approved by Weslaco city leaders; however, Weslaco Police Chief Joel Rivera spoke highly of the ongoing relationship his department enjoys with Mercedes. “The city of Mercedes has been a good partner with us on the communication side,” Rivera said Tuesday evening.
“This agreement is coming from a necessity … and we’re glad to help them out,” he said, adding that small cities tend to help each other out.
“That’s the way cities operate, especially smaller cities that don’t have an abundant amount of resources,” Rivera said.
Once finalized, the arrangement is expected to last for several months — until new jail facilities can be constructed — Zavala explained to the commission.
Currently, city leaders plan to move the police department to the current location of the Mercedes Public Works facility on the north side of town. The building has the benefit of having ample space, room for expansion and — with a fence around its perimeter — is already a secure facility, Zavala said.
“We are adding new construction to the south side of the building which would be the jail cells. The rest of the building’s already intact,” Zavala said. He estimates the new construction of the jail cells could be completed as soon as six months.