Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims wants to demolish the 66-year-old south annex jail in the heart of downtown and replace it with a brand new facility to help relieve inmate overcrowding.
Some Fresno County supervisors, however, are skeptical.
There's little love for the ancient facility at Fresno and M streets, and the time for demolition may be right because the state is now offering grant money for jail construction. Fresno County is eligible for up to $80 million in the competitive-bid process. All the county has to do is pay 10% in matching funds.
But the cash also comes with a 30-year commitment, and supervisors on Tuesday wondered how the county could pay annual operational costs on the new jail for three decades.
"The amount of money put on the table could be some very expensive handcuffs," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said. "It is a gift that we might not be able to afford to take."
Mims wasn't in a position to refute supervisors, but her gut tells her the operating costs will be a wash with the current run-down annex. Today, she'll meet with County Administrative Officer John Navarrette to work out the numbers, including how many beds the proposed new jail would have.
Next week, she'll report back to the supervisors. Time, however, is of the essence. Applications are due Oct. 24, and since the state's $500 million pot will be awarded on a competitive basis, Fresno could be up against many of its fellow counties.
What is known is the current annual cost to operate the south annex $15 million. In addition, according a report on the issue, it costs $8.8 million for maintenance and other costs associated with keeping the south annex habitable.
"It would be close to a wash and we'd have a newer, more efficient facility that would have mental health services built into it," Mims said in an interview.
Experts long ago determined that the south annex located next to the sheriff's headquarters is inadequate because its design makes it difficult for correctional officers to see prisoners in their cells. Aisles and doorways are narrow, which puts correctional officers in danger when they transport combative prisoners.
One additional cost, Mims said, would be building an interim location to house south annex prisoners while the new jail is built. It would take, she said, five to six years to build the new jail.
The county, she said, could build a temporary facility at the old satellite jail at M and Los Angeles streets. After the new jail was finished, she said, the temporary facility could continue use as an operations base for prison work crews.
Mims' push to demolish the annex wasn't the only option put forth Tuesday to take advantage of the state grant money. It was, however, the only one that wasn't fleshed out in detail.
Other possibilities include:
Tearing down the old satellite jail which was closed in 2007 and building a new 300-bed, 25,000-square-foot facility. That cost: $12.5 million to build and $6.6 million annually to maintain.
Rehabbing the south annex jail. It currently has 686 beds, but only 499 are operational. It would cost $13 million to build (adding 187 beds) and $4.1 million annually to maintain.
Building a structure adjacent to the north annex jail, the county's newest. This would add 105 beds, cost more than $53 million to build and $5.8 annually to operate.
The county is constantly looking for ways to expand its jail capacity or reduce the population because of a combination of a 1994 federal-court agreement to reduce jail overcrowding and Gov. Jerry Brown's prison realignment plan, which has sent low-level offenders from California's 33 prisons to county jails.
While supervisors were wary of Mims' plan, they did vote 5-0 to direct county staff to find ways to more quickly move pre-trial inmates through the system. That could free up more jail beds.
One of those options is creating a new court, which would cost $1.55 million annually. Costs would include, among other things, two deputy district attorneys, two defense attorneys, a court reporter and a bailiff.
The problem is a new judge would be needed, and that requires approval from the state Legislature. The county already has four additional judgeship positions that Brown has yet to fund.
Another option could be hiring visiting judges from other counties.
Mims also suggested a new program for jail early releases that would include electronic monitoring and creation of a sheriff's parole team. The idea, Mims said, is to add a layer of monitoring to ensure those on early release show up for their court date.
As it is now, 69% of the inmates in the Fresno County Jail are pre-trial. The remaining 31% are serving sentences, county documents show.
A county report showed that for every 1% reduction in pre-trial inmates, 33 beds become available.
In other action
The Board imposed a contract on the Fresno County District Attorneys Investigators that reimposes a 7% pay cut. The investigators had agreed to a temporary pay reduction as part of their last contract, but that contract expired earlier this year. When the contract expired, the pay cut also ended.
The investigators union and county negotiators had reached an impasse, and the matter went to a fact-finding panel before the supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to impose the contract. Supervisors Phil Larson and Henry Perea voted "no."
District Attorney Elizabeth Egan came to the defense of her investigators, and it was clear bad blood was present between Egan and supervisors.
The board voted 4-0 to seek bids for a possible relocation and consolidation of the District Attorney's Office. Supervisor Judy Case was absent.
Currently, the DA's staff is spread out among six different locations, with the main staff located in the Fresno County Plaza building.
The new space needs to be between 67,000 and 77,000 square feet and within walking distance of the Fresno County Courthouse defined as a two-block square from Courthouse Park, an area bounded by Broadway, Inyo, O and Tuolumne streets.
After bids are received, supervisors will decide whether it is worth the cost to move ahead.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnellis24 on Twitter.