Precipitating what surely will become a prolonged come-to-Jesus moment at the highest levels of county government, the three bids for the new North County jail — Sheriff Bill Brown’s Holy Grail — came in millions of dollars higher than initial estimates. The lowest big was $11 million more than anticipated; for a $96 million project — the most expensive public works project in the history of Santa Barbara County, that’s a lot. State grants secured by Sheriff Brown were slated to cover 90 percent of the total cost; the remaining 10 percent would come from the county’s general fund. But with the price tag to the county increasing by $11 million, it’s uncertain exactly how the county supervisors would bridge that gap.
Among the options, the county supervisors could increase the contribution from the general fund by raiding various reserves. That, however, will prove extremely difficult politically given the intense competition that exists already for such funds. For opponents of the jail and critics of Sheriff Brown, the higher cost could provide the rationale to jump ship and abandon the new jail project. That, too, is almost impossible to visualize.
Even with Brown’s political favor waning among the supervisors, the board voted 4-1 late last year to affirm their support for the North County project. With the main jail — blistered in a scathing report a few months ago by a national civil rights organization as too small and extremely substandard — figuratively held together with duct tape and baling wire — the need for a new, more modern jail facility has gone unchallenged. It’s the annual operating costs — nearly $20 million a year — that’s given the supervisors a bad case of collective heartburn. That being said, one of the supervisors’ options would be to withdraw from the state grant without which the North County jail project is financially impossible.
The fact that all three bids were clustered tightly within $2 million of each other suggests the higher-than-expected price tag won’t be lowered by sending the project out for new bids. Nor does it appear that the price can be significantly reduced by eliminating a few of the project’s bells and whistles, such as the mission-style bell tower favored by the Sheriff because of the redemptive possibilities it invokes.
The last possibility, and the most politically palatable, is for the county to issue a special type of municipal bond, known as a Certificate of Participation, a financial tool used to underwrite the cost of governmental capital projects. Typically such bonds are sold in much larger increments, but of all the options, this inflicts the least immediate political pain while still allowing a pathway for the new jail construction to proceed.