10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors Marion Ashley and John Benoit announced Wednesday that they will seek to halt planning for a regional jail in rural Whitewater.

The move marks a reversal for supervisors and comes amid growing community opposition to the jail.

The Board of Supervisors voted March 22 to reaffirm the $300 million jail as its top capital improvement project, but a town hall meeting four days later drew more than 500 people, most of whom opposed the jail, an organizer said.

In a joint statement, Ashley and Benoit said they will ask their colleagues on Tuesday to halt the planning and reconsider options to add jail beds faster and at a lower cost at other locations. A formal vote would take place later in the month.

The county is facing a $31.3 million budget shortfall this year and a gap as high as $100 million for the fiscal year starting July 1. Although the Whitewater jail has been a top priority, the county has yet to issue bonds — which the general fund would have to finance — or identify other sources of money for the jail.

Benoit in a telephone interview Wednesday called the regional jail a “financial impossibility at this time.”

“We’ve got a $300 million mountain to climb before we can get to the first bed,” he said.

Riverside County has a shortage of jail space. The county recently completed an $80 million, 582-bed expansion of the Larry Smith Correction Facility in Banning. But the increase may be moot — Sheriff Stan Sniff said this week he would have to close 500 beds at the jail to balance his budget.

Planning for the Whitewater jail has been under way several years. The county has spent nearly $16 million buying the land near Interstate 10, designing the jail and preparing the property. The county recently completed the jail’s environmental impact report.

The jail’s first phase calls for as many as 2,000 beds. Ultimately, the county wants to build 7,200 beds, which would make the facility one of the largest local jails in the nation.

But residents and local officials, particularly in the Coachella Valley, object. Many are concerned about its effect on tourism, since the jail property is next to the freeway, and others raised questions about its finances and environmental consequences.

David Carden Jr., a member of the Palm Springs Neighborhood Involvement Committee, co-chaired the March 26 town hall about the jail. Nearly all of the 500-plus who attended opposed the jail, he said.

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