On the same day that Sheriff Bill Brown said operating costs for the entire North County Jail are anticipated at around $17.3 million — lower than assumed, especially with the inclusion of a new recidivism-reducing wing — the Grand Jury issued a report questioning the optimism behind the county’s savings plan to cover those expenses. The plan — where money has been carved out of growing revenues bit by bit since 2011 — shows that there will be enough cash available when the jail opens in the second half of fiscal year 2017-2018 and in the years following.
But, the Grand Jury warned, those extra revenues could prove fickle, as they depend on property, sales, and hotel taxes and on an improving overall economy. Before voters rejected Measure M on June 3, the maintenance initiative posed a significant threat to the plan, but other monetary issues remain, the Grand Jury said, in the form of natural disasters, the ongoing drought, any new changes to the jail, and the portion of those revenues already guaranteed to County Fire. “Should the execution of this plan not meet expectations, there is a significant probability that either a fee or tax assessment, or a reduction in services, will be necessary,” the jury stated, adding that it only places 50-70 percent faith in the plan’s success and even less faith in “both an improving economy and fiscal discipline” by supervisors.
The report goes on to theorize that a likelier scenario involves smaller property-tax increases than the plan assumes and salary freezes, budget freezes, and layoffs as a result. Increases to other taxes — parcel, sales, and utility users’ — could help bridge the gap, the jury said, but would face an uphill battle against voters, who shot down proposals to hike sales taxes to pay for the jail’s construction both in 2000 and 2010.
“If the board stays the course, the plan should work,” said Chief Deputy Laz Salinas, who oversees the Main Jail’s custody operations. Brown will go before the board in July, Salinas said, with the department’s “best estimate” on operating costs for the North County facility, factoring in the 376-bed main portion and the 228-bed recidivism-reducing wing, plus shifted staffing and services from the existing Calle Real campus. (Brown mentioned the $17.3 million figure to the board on Monday; he said in April that the jail’s operating costs would be $15.8 million, not including the recidivism-reducing wing.) Salinas added that current operating costs for the existing jail system hover around $44 million but should decrease when the North County branch opens.
Auditor-Controller Bob Geis said the jury brought up some “good points” but also said the state grants Brown secured to pay for the jail’s construction — $80 million for the main portion, $39 million for the additional wing — are an “opportunity we don’t want to miss.” The supervisors will issue their response to the report within the next few months.