By Vicki Graves: Herald Democrat

BONHAM - City and county officials never miss a chance to point out that Choice Moore Institutional Division and Buster Cole State Jail have been the best neighbors Fannin County could have.

Work crews from the two state prisons have contributed to civic construction projects across the county, aided with storm damage cleanup and reconstruction and helped in many other emergency situations.

Recently, residents complaining to the county commissioners about trash dumped in creeks near their homes came up with another job for those offenders. They asked commissioners if offenders might help remove the castoff items dumped in creeks, such as washing machines, tires, plumbing fixtures and old furniture that have ended up off the bridges.

Trash in the creeks is a problem because there are no landfills in Fannin County. The county precinct commissioners and the sheriff have trouble catching the people who are dumping it.

Cole State Jail Warden Alfonso Castillo, who's spent 22 years with the state prison system, said offenders normally are put to work in the community doing things that serve vocational purposes, but they are allowed outside the walls for a variety of community service oriented reasons.

Choice Moore Warden Kenneth Karl said anything that serves the community is possible. "The one thing that's stressed to us is that it needs to be something that is beneficial for all involved. The line that I normally ask myself is, is it a marketable job skill? In the community service aspect of using offenders, the primary focus is to benefit the offenders. That's our obligation as wardens."

Offenders who worked before, during and after the county fair didn't just pick up trash, Karl said. "That was kind of an afterthought. They did every type of construction one can think of to put that together, as well as working prior to anything being set up. They worked on the ground to level it and dug trenches and put the water and electrical lines underground.

"They might get excited to put a water line in. It was a good learning experience for them. But just like everything else in life, you can't just do the part you like," Karl said. "Sometimes you've got to do the dirty work too and pick up trash to have an opportunity to do the fun work. Right now, the offenders are feeling pretty good about themselves and pretty capable."

Elna Christopher, a media spokesperson at the Texas Association of Counties, said Texas counties have limited authority regarding environmental efforts. But Terry Clawson, a media spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said just the opposite - that it's all the county's responsibility.

"TCEQ did a lot of enforcement of illegal dumping before the 1990s, but since that time we have not had the resources," Clawson said. "The enforcement of illegal dumping is at the local level. The sheriff works for the county, right? So, it's the county. Or, if there are cities that want to enforce it, they can, too."

A bill that passed in the Legislature gave the councils of governments some money from fees collected from landfills and legal dumping operations. Arrangements were made so that the COGs can distribute that money. The county could use the money in a number of ways, either recycling or hiring a code enforcement officer, Clawson said.

"That's the way it works. It's gone to the local level. However, the local level has the money to do it now, if they choose to use that money for that thing."

For a good example of how this arrangement can work, look at Hunt County and Kaufman County, Clawson said. Both used the money to set up code enforcement offices and those offices now are self sufficient. They run off the money collected in fines.

Al Turinsky, of Honey Grove, signed up as a volunteer committee member to help deal with the problem and make a recommendation to Fannin County Commissioners Court. The first meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at the Courthouse.

"The committee will put together some kind of long-range plan to take care of the whole thing. This is a multifaceted problem but there's some grant money available, I understand," Turinsky said.