$80 million recommended for Fresno County Jail expansion

The Fresno BeeDecember 12, 2013 

A state committee has recommended approval for Fresno County's nearly $80 million request to build a new 300-bed downtown jail -- even though supervisors aren't as of now totally committed to the project.

Fresno was one of 15 counties across the state -- including Tulare and Kings -- that were awarded a total of $500 million for various jail and correction-related projects.

"We're very pleased to see the committee's decision," Fresno County Undersheriff Steve Wilkins said. "It's going to give us an opportunity to upgrade our facilities to one that is more efficient and requires less staff."

Supervisor Andreas Borgeas called the decision "a significant opportunity for Fresno County to update its aged corrections infrastructure. This is a promising development and I am inclined to move this infrastructure project forward."

The money isn't final, however. The recommendation was made by the executive steering committee of the Board of State and Community Corrections. The actual board still has the final say. It's next meeting is scheduled Jan. 16 in Los Angeles.

But corrections spokeswoman Tracie Cone said in an email that "the way we understand it here at the staff level is that the board will respect the decision of the Executive Steering Committee."

The $500 million state pot was awarded to counties on a competitive basis, and 36 counties submitted funding requests. Each of those were then ranked by state officials based on certain criteria.

Fresno County sought $79.194 million for the new jail facility. Under the county's proposal, the three-story new jail -- dubbed the west annex -- would replace the existing, antiquated 1947-vintage south annex jail.

The new jail would be adjacent to the existing main and north annex jails on the downtown Fresno block bordered by M, L, Merced and Fresno streets. It would be built behind the north annex and feature pod-style housing, program space, medical/mental health services, video visitation and a stand-alone laundry and storage building.

But the supervisors, in the October meeting when they voted on seeking the money, weren't ready to say they'd actually accept it if the proposal won state approval. Another vote on moving forward with the project still lies ahead.

The biggest concerns voiced by supervisors were a required local money match and the loss of beds by closing the south annex jail.

Fresno County's match would be 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.

But 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.

Another concern was that closing the south annex and opening the new jail would leave the county with almost 200 fewer jail beds. It can't afford to keep both open.

Officials are currently working on strategies to move pre-trial inmates more quickly through the system, which would reduce the need for jail beds. Currently, pre-trial inmates make up 69% of the Fresno County Jail population.

Already, local officials are seeking state help to create one and possibly two new courtrooms.

The committee recommended Tulare County receive $40 million to replace the existing Men's Correctional Facility and day-reporting center with a new 384-bed jail, day reporting center and vocational training center with program space in Visalia.

And the committee also said Kings County should get $20 million for a new 24-bed mental health addition with a culinary service kitchen, vocational space, three program rooms and a day reporting center.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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