After months of rocky hearings, the Board of Supervisors formally approved this week Sheriff Bill Brown’s long-sought-after new North County jail project but said “no thanks” to the treatment and reentry complex he was particularly enthusiastic about.
While receiving the stamp of approval for a 376-bed facility qualifies as a “win” for Brown, the subtext is that his relationship with the supervisors has become confrontational in recent months. On Tuesday, the board — excluding Supervisor Steve Lavagnino — could not muster enough trust in the Sheriff’s grand proposal for the 228-bed Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry (STAR) wing.
After the vote, Brown called the decision “deeply disappointing.” “As a county we have taken a giant step backward in terms of public safety and community corrections,” he said.
Two years ago, Brown secured about $100 million in state grants for the entire project, including about $38.9 million for the STAR complex. The award was a victory for Brown as a number of Grand Jury reports for two decades had concluded the main jail is woefully deteriorated. Jail personnel often refer to the main jail as the Winchester Mystery House, after the convoluted Northern California mansion and tourist attraction.
But the supervisors were not quite as quick to cheer the project. Though the process kept going through a series of testy meetings — and costing millions as county staff logged thousands of hours — the supes largely saw the future jail’s operating costs as a moving target. Likewise, all of them at one point felt as if they were in the dark about the future of the existing Calle Real jail.
As it turned out, Brown’s operating-cost estimates were not much different than the figures presented Tuesday by the consultant firm, Carter Goble Associates, LLC, that the board hired in May to vet Brown’s numbers. For instance, the consultant estimated the main jail and new North County complex would cost about $68.5 million compared to the Sheriff’s estimate of $67.9 million in operating costs each year. But that difference could mainly be attributed to money Carter Goble said the Sheriff’s Office should add to existing jail staff.
Infrastructure-wise, no one is under the impression that the main jail is in good shape. When Lavagnino asked a Carter Goble representative how he would rate the main jail on a scale of one to 10, he replied: “Can I go lower than that?” In addition, a second assessment of the main jail — completed by county General Services — found repairs and maintenance would cost $15.6 million in the next decade to repair the roof and jail interiors. To that end, supervisors Lavagnino and Peter Adam, and COLAB’s Andy Caldwell, would have preferred for the main jail to be bulldozed rather than slowly renovated with Band-Aids. According to the county’s General Services, more than two-thirds of its maintenance cost currently goes to the main jail.
Brown contended advocacy groups such as Disability Rights California could sue the county if a new facility is not built. Further, Brown stoutly argued the project is utterly needed and makes smart fiscal sense — the state is paying 90 percent of the construction costs — but four supervisors had different reasons for abandoning the STAR complex. Supervisor Janet Wolf — Brown’s most outspoken critic — argued the jail’s population, which was predicted to swell after the prison realignment known as AB 109, currently holds just 71 inmates who would otherwise be in state prison. Supervisor Doreen Farr voted against both the new jail and the STAR complex.
Though the STAR facility would drive down the per-bed cost due to the economy of scale, Wolf argued the $2 million it would take to operate it is not “chump change” as a multitude of needs come before them. “Frankly,” she added. “I think the costs will be more than that.” In addition, Wolf argued 75 percent of inmates are awaiting trail, which is higher than the state average of 62 percent, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.
Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who is running for Congress, questioned STAR supporters’ assertion that it would help inmates function better as they reenter the community. “If you are going to address the needs of the mentally ill, do you really want to do it in jail?” he asked. (Brown estimated that such a complex would translate to 37 percent reduced recidivism.)
In his closing plea, Brown noted opening the STAR complex could allow him to close down the so-called honor farm, which has 161 beds for medium-level offenders. After the vote, Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover said staff is evaluating whether the entire honor farm can be shut down; its repair needs are estimated at $1.5 million.