Wednesday, November 22 , 2017, 1:23 pm | Fair 90º


Local News

North County Jail Project Pushed Forward By Santa Barbara County Supervisors

Board decides to build jail even after bids came back millions over budget; final vote to award construction contract and fund the difference due in July

Sheriff Bill Brown tells the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors the Main Jail is “disgraceful, embarrassing and unacceptable” during a meeting to decide the future of the Northern Branch Jail project.
Sheriff Bill Brown tells the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors the Main Jail is “disgraceful, embarrassing and unacceptable” during a meeting to decide the future of the Northern Branch Jail project.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The Northern Branch County Jail will be built, even with the higher bid cost for construction, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors decided Monday.

In a 4-1 vote, with Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr dissenting, the board told staff to return in July for a final decisions on awarding a construction bid for the 376-bed project as designed, and to take the $14.7 million extra out of the new jail’s operational fund.

The county has been putting money in that fund to pay for transitional staffing and build up to the first-year operational cost of $18 million to $19 million.

Because the project came in more than $11 million over the estimated cost, the $2 million or so savings from eliminating the 228-bed Sheriff’s Treatment and Re-Entry Complex will also be used for the construction cost.

Monday’s special meeting was the point for the board to decide whether it wanted to go through with the project, which has $80 million in state grant funds pledged toward it.

The final vote awarding the construction bid and picking a funding source for the over-budget costs will be July 12.

Bad news of the higher-than-expected bids came in April, with the three construction bids coming in close to each other and all of them at least $11 million over the estimated $66.7 million

General Services Director Matt Pontes said the delay to get state approval for plans could have added costs to the project, along with the remote location of Santa Barbara County and low bidder response.

The Board of State Community Corrections “indicated very clearly” there was no additional funding available for AB 900 projects such as the Northern Branch Jail, Pontes said, and the county is responsible for any overages.

Santa Barbara County is also prohibited from making any significant changes to the project without state approval, even to save money.

County staff presented four options for the project: cancel it outright; award the bid as the project is designed; work to re-design and re-bid the project; or re-bid the project as designed and hope they come in lower.

Staff recommended the supervisors award the construction bid and find the money, which the board supported.

Members of the Deputy Sheriffs Association support the Northern Branch Jail project, saying the Main Jail is overcrowded and dilapidated. Click to view larger
Members of the Deputy Sheriffs Association support the Northern Branch Jail project, saying the Main Jail is overcrowded and dilapidated.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“The risk is too great that the number would come in even higher, and then our original bid will be null and void,” Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said of rebidding the project.

Sheriff Bill Brown once again asked the board to move forward with the project, calling the Main Jail “disgraceful, embarrassing and unacceptable for Santa Barbara County.”

Closets, basements and meeting rooms have been converted into space for bunks, and the department has to release inmates early because of overcrowding, he said.

“It’s unsafe and extremely detrimental to our custody staff,” he said.

It will be easier to recruit and retain custody staff – a challenge for years – with a new facility, he argued.

The design of the new jail has programming space so the jail system can work more on prevention and education to reduce recidivism – the rate at which people re-offend and get sent back to jail.

The Northern Branch Jail will have a 32-bed medical and mental-health wing for inmates, he said.

Even with higher construction bids, the project is an “incredible bargain” since the county is only paying for 22 percent of the construction costs, he said.

In her opposition to moving forward with the project, Farr pointed to the fact that the majority of inmates – and custody staff – will face the same conditions as they do now, since the new jail can fit about a third of the inmates currently held in the Main Jail at 4434 Calle Real.

The Main Jail facility needs an estimated $15 million of improvements over the next 10 years, and that’s not including major renovations, she said.

Public comment came almost entirely from supporters of the new jail, including law enforcement and custody staff.

“This has been a long-studied issue that has not diminished in need in the many, many years it has been on the drawing board,” Guadalupe Police Chief Gary Hoving said.

North County law enforcement agencies frequently have to drive arrestees down to the Santa Barbara jail for booking, and it takes officers off the streets for three hours at a time, which is another reason they support the new jail.

Former sheriff Jim Thomas told the board the jail has been overcrowded for decades, and the county needs to finally approve a new jail.

“Here we are again,” he said.

Many members of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association attended, and one called the jail a depressing environment for employees and inmates.

A new facility would relieve some overcrowding, improve working conditions, and make it possible to recruit and retain deputies and thereby get rid of the mandatory overtime, he said.

Funding options for the $14.7 million included using the Northern Branch Jail fund, which the supervisors supported, using strategic reserves, debt financing or a hybrid approach to spread the risk around.

Taking money from the $31 million in reserves, which are meant for unplanned events, could negatively affect the county’s credit rating, budget director Tom Alvarez said.

Santa Barbara has already spent $12.6 million for this project, including buying the property near Santa Maria at West Black and Betteravia roads.

The new jail is expected to open in March 2019, which means the first fiscal year would not be a full year’s operational cost.

If the operating cost estimates are off, “there is no recovery from that,” Lavagnino said.

“I know we’ve had an outside look at this, and I’m just curious from our CEO to ensure that number is accurate because if it’s off, the whole budget is blown.”

County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato said her office is “confident in these costs” and the board controls the budget.

“If there are exorbitant costs that you don’t believe should be funded, it’s your decision at budget time,” she said. “We do believe there’s sufficient funding given what we know.”

Farr pointed out the inflexibility of funding given the county’s agreement with the state to operate the facility at a certain capacity for 30 years.

“Once we sign on the dotted line, we’re committed for the next 30 years even if other parts of the county have to be cut back or other parts of the sheriff’s budget have to be cut back, because that’s our agreement,” she said.

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf told Brown to make sure he has plans for programming – not just space for programming – at the new jail.

She made a plea to Brown to have a serious response to all the problems listed in the Disability Rights California report and make sure those types of policy decisions are not carried forward to the new jail.

The report found inadequate mental-health care for inmates and widespread overuse of isolation and solitary confinement.

Lavagnino said he’s convinced there is a need for a new jail, and if the county waits, the cost will increase and the state matching funds will disappear.

The county “needs an employee buy-in” since there are finite funds available and some salary and benefit increases are already on the books going into 2019, he said.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he wouldn't support any funding plan that included using reserves. 

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam said the project had his support until the bids came back $15 million over budget. He is also wary of the high operating cost, but said he looked at the value and necessity of the project and decided to support it.

Adam said many people had threatened him and attempted to bully him into supporting the project, and his final decision was not influenced by them.

“I think we all admit we have failed to maintain our Main Jail, and to say it’s in need of a makeover would be an epic understatement.”

The county should start an endowment fund for maintaining and replacing the new jail as soon as possible, “so we don’t show up in the same place in 30 or 50 years,” he said.

In her dissent, Farr said the capital and ongoing operational cost of the new jail is “just too big a hit” on the county’s discretionary general funds.

“The cost of the Northern Branch Jail to build has mushroomed exorbitantly and we haven’t even broken ground yet,” she said.

Operational costs will keep increasing with salary and benefit costs, and the fact is the Main Jail – which everyone agrees is dilapidated – will have to continue operating to hold the majority of inmates even after the new jail is built, she said.

At maximum capacity, the Northern Branch Jail can fit less than one-third the capacity the Main Jail has now.

That part of the plan has been “pretty much invisible in discussion until just recently,” Farr said.

“If we build the Northern Branch Jail, we prioritize that over everything else that we do in the county for the next decade and maybe next 30 years, and I just can’t do that.”

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Most of the crowd at Monday’s meeting supported the Northern Branch Jail project, which the Board of Supervisors plan to put out to bid at a July meeting. Click to view larger
Most of the crowd at Monday’s meeting supported the Northern Branch Jail project, which the Board of Supervisors plan to put out to bid at a July meeting.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)
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