By no stretch of imagination does Sheriff Bill Brown resemble Captain Ahab, the vengeance-obsessed, one-legged sea captain out of Moby-Dick. And certainly, the proposed new North County jail can never be confused for any great white whale. But by the strained standards of Santa Barbara county government, they’re close enough. And as of late Monday morning, Sheriff Brown — after eight years — had finally caught up with his personal Moby-Dick.
Culminating a four-hour special meeting, the county supervisors voted 4-1 to affirm their prior commitment to building a new North County jail despite recent revelations that the out-of-pocket costs to Santa Barbara County taxpayers will be $15 million more than expected. Even for the largest public works project in county history, that’s a lot of money.
Going into Monday’s meeting, the outcome seemed very much in doubt. This April, the supervisors learned that the three construction bids for the new jail came in $11 million over what project managers had estimated. With ancillary other costs factored in, that translates to a $14.7 million wide gap. Although the county will still receive $80 million in state grants to build the jail, the higher bids mean the county will have to pony up 22 percent of the construction costs rather than the 10 percent Sheriff Brown had long assured the supervisors.
No one, he told the supervisors, was more upset than he was that the bids came in so high. The price of steel had gone up; the economic recovery had driven up the cost of labor; big-time contractors were so busy that only three bids were submitted. But even so, he insisted, the deal still remained too good to walk away from. “It’s like we had a 90 percent discount that just got dropped to 78 percent,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s still the best deal to build the new jail. And it won’t ever get any better.”
After preaching to the supervisors about the redemptive power of jails — many people don’t turn their lives around, he said, until they experience the rock bottom of jail time — Brown exhorted the supervisors to act. The deadline to sign on the dotted line for the $80 million in state grant money was only a couple of months away. “If not now, when?” he asked. “If not us, who?”
It was Supervisor Salud Carbajal who made the motion in favor of Brown’s jail right off the bat. “We’re really between a rock and a hard place,” he lamented. “We have no choice.”
To collect that $80 million, the county must sign a contract with state corrections early this August. According to the fine print of the supervisors’ vote, that contract will be signed in June.
Even before the bad news about the bids first surfaced, some supervisors had been struggling with chronic sticker shock over the $18 million a year the county will have to spend — out of its general fund — to staff and operate the new jail. (That’s in addition to the $41 million spent annually on the existing facility.) The news also surfaced at a time when relations between Brown and the supervisors had grown especially strained. But even the new jail’s staunchest advocate, 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, was given serious pause by how far off the county estimates were. “If we’re that off on operating costs, there’s no recovering from this,” he said.
By any reckoning, the county’s existing detention facility has long qualified as a “franken-jail,” a hodgepodge of mismatched pods and wings crazy-quilted together over five decades. In the past 25 years, at least 20 grand juries and one specially convened Blue Ribbon commission have concluded the main jail was too small, dangerously overcrowded, broken down, and unsafe for prisoners, guards, and the public alike. In 1981, criminal defense attorney Bob Sanger took the jail to court, charging that overcrowded conditions constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In 1986, a Superior Court judge, William Gordon, ruled Sanger was right and ordered the jail to clean up its act.
Sanger filed his initial complaint on behalf of a hapless — but lethal — hitman from Seattle, who died in custody several years ago. The lawsuit filed in his name, however, still lives on. Two times — in 2000 and 2010 — voters were asked to tax themselves to build a new jail that would make the lawsuit go away. Both proposals lost big. Former sheriff Jim Thomas, who hatched the 2000 effort, joked, “I don’t think my own wife voted for it.”
Things have changed a lot since then. Sheriff Brown was elected in 2007, mostly on the promise he would deliver a new jail or die trying. In 2010, he took a half-cent sales tax to the voters — that would also pay for counseling and rehabilitations programs designed to cut inmate recidivism. Jails are a hard sell anytime, but in a recession, they’re impossible. The ballot measure was crushed.
This Monday, Brown was taking no chances. He packed the house with enough law enforcement brass — mostly from North County — to declare a state of siege. Without a jail of their own, they complained, their officers had to drive prisoners to Santa Barbara, book them at the County Jail, and then drive back. All this took a minimum of three hours. That’s three hours a sworn officer could otherwise be on patrol.
Construction union representatives, contractors, and pro-business political agitators like Andy Caldwell of COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business) and Joe Armendariz of the County Taxpayers Association turned up the heat. The jail, they argued, meant jobs.
The target of all this was 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam, who has never been shy about expressing his antipathy for Sheriff Brown. Although a hard-line, pro-business conservative, Adam has been sharply critical of Brown — personally and politically — as well as the sheriff’s jail proposals. Adam made it clear early on he wouldn’t support any jail project unless the state corrections agency issuing the grant agreed to make up the $14.7 million difference. That state agency made it clear it had no intention of doing so. Likewise, its representatives stated, any major design changes that reduced the number of beds in the new jail as part of a plan to cut costs would also imperil funding.
Brown’s onetime campaign manager Lanny Ebenstein wrote an op-ed trashing Adam — a fiscal tightwad and governmental minimalist — for not looking out for North County interests. This broadside infuriated Adam, who took heated exception to allegations that he was somehow “responsible or soft on crime” because of his position on the jail. Far more persuasive were the one-on-meetings between Adam and former sheriff Jim Thomas and Judge (and former county supervisor) Tim Staffel — conservatives in good standing — who argued the new jail was direly needed. Adam, considered a surefire “no” vote going into the meeting, wound up surprising everyone and voted for the jail. “I have been convinced that the value exceeds the cost.”
County bean counters devised an ingenious strategy to bridge the $14.7 million gap without dipping into the county’s strategic reserves or going into debt to pay for bonds, either of which would have triggered Adam’s “no” vote. Instead, the supervisors approved a plan to borrow $12.2 million from a fund they’d been building a few million bucks a year for the past five years so that when the jail opened, the $18 million needed for operating costs had been squirreled away. Because the bids went out a year later than scheduled, the jail’s opening will be set back at least a year, allowing the county to borrow from that kitty.
Going into the meeting, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr was considered a certain “no” vote, as well. She did not budge and cast the sole “no” vote. In the past year, Farr has grown considerably more outspoken in her opposition to locking up the mentally ill, the homeless, and the addicted. If they were treated, rather than incarcerated, the jail wouldn’t be so crowded, she argued, and the cost to the county would be considerably lower. In addition, Farr has claimed that the high bails levied by Santa Barbara judges — among the highest in the state — contribute to jail overcrowding. Bail reform, she’s contended, needs to be explored. In addition, Farr suggested Santa Barbara County should explore leasing jail space from Kern County — which apparently has an abundance of empty cells — for its prisoners. The cost, she suggested, would be far less.
Farr also objected that with or without the new jail, the existing jail needs $10 million in repairs over the next three years, $15 million in the next five. Where was that money coming from? she asked.
Joining Farr in her concerns about incarcerating the mentally ill were supervisors Carbajal and Janet Wolf. Wolf was especially vocal in urging more county resources — land and bond rating — be used to augment the number of psychiatric hospital beds — only 16 now — and facilities for mentally ill children. The county, she objected, spent millions shipping its mentally ill to facilities beyond the county line because there weren’t places to put them in Santa Barbara. Supervisor Lavagnino responded that the Behavioral Wellness Department spends $100 million a year, arguing that stinginess is not the issue plaguing the mental-health system.
The new jail will be licensed for a maximum load of 376 inmates. It will take roughly one-third the county’s inmate population. The existing jail is licensed for 818 but frequently runs in excess of 1,000. It will take two-thirds. Brown stressed the new facility will have 32 beds dedicated to the mentally ill and those in need of medical treatment. Programming will be provided, he said, to help inmates not re-offend, thus reducing recidivism rates.
Farr wanted to know what kind of programming would be provided. She wanted to know how much it would cost and where the money would come from. For those questions, there were no answers. The matter will next be addressed during the supervisors’ budget deliberations in the coming month.
To celebrate, Sheriff Brown and crew went to Judge for Yourself and feasted on cheeseburgers and diet sodas.