Dallas County thought it could save money by hiring a private security company to guard prisoners receiving care at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Instead, it's spending more and getting less.
There were problems with the small security contractor -- the lowest bidder -- from the start. Greer's Investigations and Security has been unable to provide enough security guards to handle the job because most of them didn't have the necessary state certification, according to county officials.
As it has tried to cover the staffing shortages, the Sheriff's Department has incurred overtime costs as high as $400,000 in a six-month period, while Greer is being paid about $800,000 a year.
The problems are not limited to money.
Since Greer's contract began in October 2003, at least eight prisoners have escaped from Parkland, according to the Sheriff's Department. In many cases, prisoners either walked out of the hospital or escaped after asking permission to use the restroom.
All have been recaptured, a sheriff's spokesman said.
Billy Greer, owner of the company, declined through his attorney to comment.
He also did not respond to questions e-mailed to his attorney.
The most recent escape last month prompted county Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield to call for ending Greer's contract.
The contract requires Greer to provide licensed guards and says violation of the terms is ground for termination. It also says that any increased cost to the county arising from a breach of contract shall be paid to the county upon demand.
The company has been the subject of complaints. A former chief deputy compiled those complaints and turned them over to county staff members in 2004. But when the chief deputy retired, her report hit a dead-end, and county staffers have not been able to locate copies of it.
Despite those problems, county commissioners have twice followed the sheriff's recommendation and renewed Greer's contract, first in September 2004 and again in October.
Mr. Mayfield and County Judge Margaret Keliher said they didn't know about the complaints and escapes when they voted to renew the contract. Mr. Mayfield said he will insist such information is included in future briefings before the court is asked to renew a contract.
"This information was kept from us," he said. "I think they've [Greer] proven they can't do it."
The problem is, the Sheriff's Department is dealing with staffing shortages of its own -- 51 vacancies in detention alone -- and cannot take over the service if the contract is ended, Deputy Chief Edgar McMillan Jr. said.
If Greer has not improved its performance by this fall, Chief McMillan said, his department will recommend options that include rebidding the contract and creating a separate hospital guard division within the Sheriff's Department.
"It's a new thing for him; it's a new thing for us," he said about Mr. Greer. "It's a learning experience. I know there have been some hiccups."
But Parkland officials and some county commissioners prefer instead to reserve Parkland for surgeries and emergencies and build more clinics at the jail for most inmates, which would reduce the need for hospital guards.
Sharon Phillips, a Parkland vice president overseeing the hospital's takeover of jail health, said hospital, county and sheriff's officials are discussing ways to expand clinical space at the jails and increase the number of medical workers there.
The number of inmate referrals to Parkland increased 33 percent from 2004 to 2005, according to numbers provided by the hospital.
Greer was paid $893,124 last fiscal year for guarding inmates. During the first six months of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Greer guards worked only 38 percent of the 28,521 hours spent guarding inmates at the hospital, according to the Sheriff's Department.