LA VILLA — The city of La Villa again failed to renew a private prison contract after the city council failed to establish quorum for a special meeting Saturday morning. The contract with the GEO Group’s East Hidalgo Detention Center has remained pending for months, costing the city tens of thousands in lost revenue.
“Well, as you can see, we don’t have quorum,” La Villa Mayor Alma Morón said after the majority of the city council failed to show up for the specially called meeting Saturday.
“I did have one commissioner show up for the special meeting. The other ones did not show up, so we cannot call the meeting to order, so no action can be taken on the items that were scheduled to be acted upon,” she said.
That one commissioner was Place 2 Alderman Joe Contreras, who left city hall once he learned none of his other colleagues were present.
Along with the prison contract, the city was also slated to hold a budget workshop Saturday to discuss COVID-19 relief funds La Villa is slated to receive later this month as part of the American Rescue Plan, which was passed by Congress this March.
Since quorum is not needed to hold a public workshop, Morón continued with it as scheduled, brainstorming with city staff how to use the funds once they arrive. But as for the contract with the GEO Group, nothing could be done.
The city’s five-year contract with the private prison contractor expired last October, Morón explained. But, several factors have contributed to the city’s inability to renew the deal.
Among those have been administrative changes at both the city and the GEO Group. After former City Administrator Arnie Amaro resigned in January 2020, the city’s new administration was unaware that the contract was set to expire later in the year.
By the time the GEO Group reminded the city just one week before the contract’s lapse, it was too late. The company was unwilling to negotiate at all, the mayor said.
The GEO Group didn’t return to the negotiation table until February of this year, about one month after President Joe Biden instructed the Department of Justice to begin phasing out its reliance on private prisons for federal prisoners.
But beyond those variables outside the city’s control, the La Villa City Council’s history of canceled meetings has exacerbated the issue. And that, Morón said, is costing the town of 2,700 tens of thousands of dollars every month.
“We’re not receiving any payment from the prison at all. We’re just operating on what we’re collecting from our water and sewer revenues and our tax collections,” the mayor said, referring to the utility services the city provides to the prison facility.
Since the contract lapsed, the prison has not paid La Villa its “per diem” fee — the amount of money it normally pays the city for each prisoner housed inside the 1,300-bed prison.
“We were receiving anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000 a month on the per diem. And that is a big loss for the city,” Morón said.
Nor will La Villa be able to recover that lost revenue, the mayor said.
The prison contract has been on the council’s agenda several times this year. In May, the council failed to make quorum for its regular meeting, scuttling discussions of nearly two dozen issues besides the prison contract.
But enough council members did show up for June’s regular meeting. After discussing the contract in closed session, the council unanimously approved a new contract. All that was needed was for the GEO Group to sign it, as well.
Instead, the company counter offered, proposing a lower fee than it had originally agreed to. The city protested with a counteroffer of its own before the prison company returned to the originally agreed upon amount.
But that back-and-forth means the council has to consider and approve the contract terms again — something the mayor hoped would be accomplished Saturday.
Should the council again approve the new contract, La Villa will enter into a vastly different relationship with the prison than it has enjoyed over the last five years.
Whereas the previous contract called for the prison to pay a fee per prisoner per day, the new contract will instead have the prison pay a flat annual rate.
Previously, the prison was paying $1.50 per inmate per day. When at capacity, the 1,300-bed prison could expect to pay the city more than $58,000 per month.
Now, however, the GEO Group will pay La Villa $400,000 per year divided into 12 equal installments, or just over $33,333 per month, according to a draft copy of the contract.
The prison company will also give the city $10,000 for scholarships.
La Villa will have to wait until Aug. 11 — the next regular meeting date — to try to approve the contract again.
“City staff and myself will continue to be here and call the meetings that we need to — board workshops, special meetings — and just wait to see if they show up,” Morón said.