By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday endorsed a county bid to seek an additional $24 million from the state to build a 160-bed detention and probation facility, but not before asking probing questions about the center’s hefty operating costs and how it would fit in the county’s criminal justice strategy.
The $67 million facility, to be located next to the main jail in Santa Rosa, would combine locked, minimum-security housing for offenders transitioning out of jail and halfway house-type lodging for those under an alternative sentence or on probation who the county says would otherwise be at high risk to reoffend.
But the price tag for the county to operate the so-called Community Corrections Center, estimated at $11.5 million a year, concerned all five supervisors. Two called it the “elephant in the room.”
“I think it is going to be a challenge for me to fully endorse this project until we have that discussion,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire, referring to his questions about funding and the fit of the proposal within the county’s detention and probation strategy.
Other supervisors voiced concerns that moving forward with the new grant application would further commit the county to a project that they said had not been fully vetted.
“How does the public benefit by us building this?” asked Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
The push-back came as opposition to the project emerged from a group advocating for greater county spending on road upkeep, one of many services and programs that get significantly less county discretionary money than public safety and criminal justice departments.
“Encumbering the general fund with yet another expensive obligation is unwise until the supervisors have approved a long-term plan to address the ongoing crisis concerning the repair and maintenance of county roads,” the group Save Our Sonoma Roads said in a written statement Monday.
The comments prompted a rebuke from Supervisor David Rabbitt, who led questioning of the detention project, but also contended the county wasn’t choosing it over road upkeep.
“It isn’t an either-or situation,” said Rabbitt, the board chairman. “I think those same people wouldn’t appreciate if we didn’t address the criminal justice situation in this county.”
The 80,000-square-foot corrections center would be among the first of its kind in the state, offering a space to house county inmates with special needs and a one-stop shop for those shifting out of jail or needing more help while on probation. It has been on the county drawing board since 2007.
The county so far has secured $36 million from Sacramento for the project. The funding is part of the state’s pledge to help counties deal with the shift of criminal justice duties, including what once would have been state inmates and parolees, to county supervision.
The proposal comes at a time when national crime rates are on a historic downward trend. The county’s jail system projects little need for expansion in the next five years, despite the influx of new offenders from the criminal justice realignment.
The state funds have presented counties with a dilemma, forcing them to choose between accepting state money and the ongoing obligations that come with it, or forgoing it and braving the uncertain future of their jail systems without, or with less, state assistance.
San Joaquin County last year passed on the same funding Sonoma County is now in line for, citing the high ongoing cost of operating the new jail it was contemplating.
“I’ve heard of counties that have built these facilities and been unable to operate them. They just let them sit empty,” said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson. “That’s your biggest fear.”
Law enforcement officials nevertheless defended the project, saying it was a key component in their early-intervention efforts to reduce crime and crowding in the justice system.
“It presents a new paradigm for serving time,” said Bob Ochs, the county’s chief probation officer, referring to additional programs the county could offer inmates and those serving probation. “It’s not just idle time.”
Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker touted the project as one that could ultimately lead to the long-envisioned closure of the county’s North County Detention Facility, an older jail housing about a third of the current population of about 1,150 offenders. As proposed, the corrections center also would include a $7 million, 9,000-square-foot kitchen for the jail system, replacing the one in the main jail, which sheriff’s officials say is undersized.
“We continue to flood money into the NCDF to make it more secure,” Walker said about the north county facility. “If we could close it today, we would.”
County administrators are set to return to the board in early January, before the anticipated state award date, for a fuller discussion of the project. The construction cost would include a 10 percent county match, or $6.7 million, which would come partly from the value of the county site for the center and from a pair of capital-project funds.
Contact Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.