Fresno County supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to seek nearly $80 million in state money to build a new 300-bed jail in downtown Fresno.
There is, however, no guarantee Fresno County will get the money. And, if it does, there's no guarantee supervisors will agree to spend it.
"I think I'm OK moving forward because we don't even know if we're going to get the money," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said.
Time is now of the essence. The application is due in Sacramento on Thursday.
Under the proposal, the new jail, dubbed the west annex, would replace the existing, antiquated 1947-vintage south annex jail. But the south annex jail has 499 beds. Closing it and opening the new jail would leave the county with almost 200 fewer jail beds, "which is kind of giving me a little bit of heartburn," Borgeas said.
In addition, supervisors continually sought assurances Tuesday that the county would have the money to operate the facility.
But in the end, the board decided there was no immediate risk in at least seeking the funds, a decision that was praised by Sheriff Margaret Mims.
"This really provides a facility for the future," she said.
The new jail would be adjacent to the existing main and north annex jails on the downtown block bordered by M, L, Merced and Fresno streets. The new jail would be built behind the north annex.
Under the proposal, Fresno County will seek $79.194 million from a $500 million state pot that will be awarded to counties on a competitive basis.
"I definitely think we can show a need," Mims said. "I feel very confident that we can be more than competitive with other counties competing for these same funds."
If Fresno County wins the money -- and supervisors agree in future votes to accept and spend it -- it will be responsible for a funding match of almost $8.8 million.
Of that amount, $7.6 million would be cash from tobacco bond money. Also, the value of the land counts as an in-kind county contribution.
County officials say the new facility would be cheaper to operate than the current south annex jail, which costs $15.1 million annually. The new west annex would cost $10.7 million per year.
The new jail would be three floors. The number of beds has been a moving target, but has now been firmly set at 300, Mims said. She also said the new jail would be built in such a way that two additional floors -- and 300 more beds -- could be added at a later date.
Though supervisors are nervous about losing 199 jail beds, county officials are developing some strategies they hope will move pre-trial inmates more quickly through the system. That would reduce the need for jail beds.
Currently, pre-trial inmates make up 69% of the Fresno County Jail population, which leaves less than a third of its capacity for sentenced prisoners. A county report showed that for every 1% reduction in pre-trial inmates, 33 beds become available.
One option being explored is to add a new courtroom. Another option could be hiring visiting judges from other counties.
Still, supervisors quizzed staffers about ways not to lose beds -- or even add some.
For instance, Mims was asked if the south annex jail could stay open, even on a limited basis, after the new west annex jail was finished. Another suggestion was renovating the old south annex instead of building the new jail.
"I would recommend against it," said County Administrative Officer John Navarrette.
It would cost $11 million to $15 million to renovate the south annex, county officials said. And that, Navarrette said, would just delay the facility's inevitable closure.
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 put correctional officers in danger when they move combative prisoners.
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