12:28 AM PDT on Monday, May 2, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors Tuesday are expected to halt their efforts to build a regional detention center in Whitewater and instead focus on expanding existing jails.

If supervisors follow through on the move it will mark a reversal, not only from March when they reaffirmed the regional jail as their top priority, but from nearly six years ago when they studied — and ultimately decided against — expanding existing sites.

But supervisors insist things are different now and the change in course is the most prudent decision for the cash-strapped county.

“You have to look at 2005 and 2011 and ask yourself is there something different?” Supervisor John Benoit said. “Clearly, there are huge differences. The fiscal situation has changed dramatically.”

The cost to build the $300 million regional jail and the estimated $78 million a year needed to operate it required the county to rethink its options, Benoit said.

“They were both huge impediments to progressing on the path we were on,” he said.

Still, the county is in desperate need of more jail capacity.

One report estimated the need for 2,400 additional beds by 2020. The county also is under a federal court order to release inmates to avoid crowding. And the demand is only expected to increase with the state’s plan to send inmates to the local level. The county would have to house and supervise the prisoners.

The county has 3,902 beds, down from 4,191 because of the recent closure of the Riverside Old Jail adjacent to the historic courthouse in downtown Riverside. Sheriff Stan Sniff shuttered the facility to save money and because it no longer met state standards.

MUCH-NEEDED SPACE

The regional jail, planned on about 140 acres near the intersection of Rushmore Avenue and Tamarack Road alongside Interstate 10, would have provided the county with much-needed space.

The first phase called for as many as 2,000 beds. The county spent $6.65 million on land acquisition and escrow costs and about $15.7 million on design and environmental reviews, money the county may not fully recoup.

But since the regional jail plan called for as many as 7,200 beds in future years, county officials said the initial costs for the first phase are higher than expansions at existing sites — as much as $150,000 per bed, county officials said. Future phases would be cheaper, however, since roads, sewers and other infrastructure would already be in place.

Plus, the county does not have the $78 million needed to operate the regional jail and may not for several years, said Benoit, who along with Supervisor Marion Ashley has led efforts to re-study jail options.

The county faces a $24.8 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to a third-quarter budget report before supervisors Tuesday, and a gap ranging as high as $100 million for fiscal 2011-12. The sheriff has said he’ll have to mothball as many as 800 existing jail beds to meet budget goals.

OTHER OPTIONS

Supervisors studied the other options when deciding to move ahead with the regional jail in Whitewater, raising questions about what has changed since October 2005 when the county completed a jail master plan.

The report looked at the possibility of expanding the county’s five jails. The report listed a moderate potential for expansion for Robert Presley Detention Center in downtown Riverside, the Indio Jail and the Southwest Detention Center in French Valley.

The report listed a high potential for expansion at Larry Smith Correction Facility in Banning, and the county ultimately spent $80 million building an extra 582 beds there. The Smith expansion costs about $13 million a year to operate.

The county’s fifth jail in Blythe was given a low potential.

In requesting a halt to the regional jail, Benoit last month suggested that an expansion of the Indio jail and the Robert Presley should be eyed again.

“Based on where we were in 2005, it appears the decision was made to invest heavily in a mega-facility. I am not going to question whether that made sense. I was not here,” said Benoit, who took office in late 2009. “It is not where we live in 2011.”

The Indio Jail is at Oasis Street and Highway 111 on a block that includes a county administrative building.

Benoit and Ashley said the administrative building is aging and needs replacement, something the 2005 report didn’t address.

Benoit said the consensus within the county is that remodeling the administrative center is too costly. “It would be better to build new,” he said.

Tearing the building down would free up space for an expansion of the Indio Jail, he said. Benoit said the Coachella Valley also needs a new emergency operations center.

“You could probably do all of that for less than a third of what we were planning on spending for the first phase of the other plan,” Benoit said.

Likewise in Riverside, Ashley said an expansion of the Robert Presley jail should be looked at again.

The 2005 jail report said a second tower at Robert Presley could add up to 1,600 beds. That would require the relocation of the adjacent sheriff’s administration building and the Riverside Police Department headquarters.

Both are older buildings and the county now owns the police headquarters, Ashley said.

The original Robert Presley Detention Center was built in 1989 for $43.3 million. According to the 2005 jail report, a 1,600-bed expansion would cost $120.6 million to $137.8 million now.

ADDING JAIL BEDS

Rob Field, an assistant county executive officer who oversees building construction, said the county will study all options.

The measure supervisors will vote on Tuesday keeps adding jail beds as a top priority — just not at the regional jail in Whitewater — and directs staff to update the 2005 report.

Field said the county must get to the point where construction can begin, something that was still far on the horizon for the regional jail since operational funding has not been identified.

“We are not going to put ourselves in a position where we cannot afford to operate them,” Field said.

Sniff, the sheriff who will have to oversee the jails, has pledged to work closely on planning for additional jail beds. But he urged caution.

In a memo last week to the county executive office, Sniff said any study to add beds to existing sites should be “conducted in the same methodical fashion as the first effort in 2005, and not done hastily.”

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