11:21 PM PDT on Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to put on hold a proposed regional jail in Whitewater that would have cost $300 million to build.

Instead, the board decided to study adding much-needed beds to existing jails, a move they said could be done cheaper and more quickly.

“It fiscally doesn’t make any sense,” Supervisor John Benoit said of the regional jail.

Benoit and Supervisor Marion Ashley, who represents Whitewater, led efforts to re-think the county’s strategy and said the finances are far different today than in 2005 when the county moved forward with planning a regional detention center.

Although the county has spent more than $22 million on the regional jail effort, supervisors said changing course is the right decision.

On Tuesday, supervisors held a public hearing on updating their capital improvement plan to reflect the switch from a regional detention center — often called a hub jail — to the expansion of existing sites. Adding jail space, though, remains the board’s top priority.

County staff will now embark on updating a 2005 jail study that projected the need for 2,400 additional beds by 2020. That report, which took a year to complete, evaluated the feasibility of expanding the five existing jails.

County staff said they did not know how long the new study will take to finish.

Undersheriff Colleen Walker told supervisors the county is in desperate need of new beds.

“We are way behind the curve,” she said. “We need beds, and we need them now.”

Walker said the department still believes the regional detention center approach is the most efficient model. But she said Sheriff Stan Sniff and his department will partner and work closely on the new effort.

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.

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. Future phases would be cheaper, however, since roads, sewers and other infrastructure would already be in place.

The county does not have the estimated $78 million a year needed to operate the regional jail and may not for several years.

The county faces a $24.8 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30 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.

The Whitewater site also proved controversial. Many in the Coachella Valley long opposed the jail and became increasingly vocal in recent months.

Desert residents feared the jail could prove harmful to tourism and hurt a key wildlife corridor in the area.

For those residents, Tuesday’s decision was welcome news.

Paul Lewin, a spokesman for Coachella Valley Citizens United, told supervisors that desert residents agree there is a need for more jail capacity.

The primary goal should be to deliver the extra jail space as quickly and cheaply as possible, he said.

“The Whitewater hub jail achieves neither of these purposes,” Lewin said.

But supervisors Tuesday pushed back against the argument that a jail would affect tourism.

Supervisor John Tavaglione said people will pass the jail traveling 70 mph in a car and may not even notice it’s there. Supervisor Jeff Stone said the tourism fears are “hyperinflated.”

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