A year after arrestees moved to Weslaco, Mercedes jail still in planning phase

Nearly a year after the poor physical condition of the Mercedes police department and jail building grew so unsafe that officials hastily approved an agreement to house prisoners in neighboring Weslaco, the city’s plans to build a new jail across town remain in the planning phase, with the project scope and budget still uncertain.

Little more became clear during an hour-long workshop the Mercedes City Commission held Tuesday to discuss the project and hear an update from architect Eli Ochoa, of ERO Architects.

It was last July that city leaders agreed conditions at the dilapidated jail on South Ohio Street — just two blocks from city hall — had become so unsafe for human occupancy that prisoners could no longer be detained there. Plagued by mold and pervasive plumbing issues, the city entered into an interlocal agreement with Weslaco to house Mercedes’ prisoners at the Weslaco city jail.

The initial term length for the memorandum of understanding was just six months — the span of time Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala estimated it would take to retrofit the city’s existing public works building on the north side of town and add limited new construction in the form of jail cells and other secure spaces.

“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 after a July 30, 2019 commission meeting.

Approximately six months later, as police department staff had begun the process of migrating from the old facility to the public works building, the city exercised its option to renew the MOU with Weslaco for an additional six months — paying Weslaco just over $50 per prisoner per day.

And now, nearly a year after the original prisoner agreement, Mercedes still has yet to finalize design plans, settle on a construction budget, or outline a timeline for completing the project.

“We went through a number of iterations on the program just to make sure that we would have the program of spaces set up, because from this is what we built our cost model,” Ochoa said of initial planning discussions he had had with Zavala, Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez and some members of the commission prior to Tuesday’s workshop.

Ochoa began sketching out jail components with a $2.7 million budget in mind, he said, before those initial discussions led to trimming estimated costs to under $900,000. “We pared down the program to what the needs of the city were,” he said.

“We really honed in on the detention because all the other parts were going to be part of the existing building,” he continued.

While space for the department’s administration, investigators and other personnel could be housed in the existing public works building, cells and other secure holding facilities will need to be newly constructed out of concrete, steel doors and more, Ochoa explained.

In all, he estimated the new construction would amount for approximately 1,300 square feet.

But commissioners probed for ways to pare down costs even more.

Commissioner Cristela “Cris” De Leon Hernandez questioned whether the department needed a dedicated evidence storage room. She and fellow Commissioner Leo Villarreal also asked if the size of the booking area could be reduced any further.

“Right now, we have them (evidence) in some storage units, that’s why we need something,” Chief Chavez said of the proposal to build an evidence room.

When asked about reducing the size of the booking area, he replied, “I would prefer more of a simpler jail.”

But Ochoa — who is also the architect for the new Hidalgo County Courthouse, and has designed and built several other municipal jails — cautioned against skimping any further on secure areas, out of concern for officer safety.

“When you’re handling the defendant that you have in custody, you have to make sure that you have enough room so that you as the officer are safe when you’re incarcerating or putting someone away,” Ochoa said.

“If you’re going into a real confined area, it’s real easy for someone to knock you back and be able to try to escape,” he said, later noting that the current plans call for the booking area to be approximately 6 feet wide, not including space that will be occupied by a counter.

Plans to include a sally port for prisoner intake — a security feature of many municipal jails — were also scrapped in favor of an outdoor area with an awning from which to disembark prisoners from police vehicles.

Chavez said two perimeter fences will instead provide enough security against potential escapes.

The commissioners ultimately moved on to the possibility to recycling some elements of the old jail — including steel doors and door frames — to achieve additional cost savings. Whether the components can be reused is something a detention security expert will have to evaluate, Ochoa said, though the possibility is high.

But as the commission continued to debate over the details of each facet of the facility in attempts to trim costs even further, Hernandez at one point asked Ochoa why he had not come better prepared with more specific figures.

“If we only have a certain amount of money, let’s just work on that amount of money,” Mayor Henry Hinojosa added.

“I agree,” Ochoa replied. “And if we could at least have a budget, that at least guides me on where I can go,” he said.

Ultimately, the city manager said he would look into inviting the security expert in to evaluate how many components of the old jail can be repurposed before sitting down to establish a more concrete project budget.

The city plans to hold additional workshops about the jail.