While some supervisors are citing financial strains, political waffling may also be to blame for today’s decision by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to halt plans for a proposed jail.
Tuesday the supervisors tentatively abandoned the proposed mid-county “hub jail'' project in favor of focusing resources on expanding current detention facilities.
To-date, about $22 million has been spent on the environmental impact report, design studies and other efforts associated with the hub jail, according to Department of Facilities Management Director Rob Field.
“It's very clear that the cost of building this particular project are very, very high,'' said Supervisor John Benoit. “It's too costly to go down this path right now.''
In February 2007, the board -- on which Benoit was not sitting at the time -- voted unanimously to make the proposed Riverside County Regional Detention Center the number one capital improvement project on the county's to-do list. The supervisors reaffirmed that commitment in a vote just three weeks ago.
An extensive study was undertaken to identify possible locations for the detention center, most often referred to as the “hub jail,'' with a half-dozen sites selected in the central county region.
The favored spot, based on county planning criteria, turned out to be a 200-acre site at the intersection of Rushmore Avenue and Tamarack Road, just off Interstate 10, on the eastern approach to Palm Springs.
An environmental assessment of the land cited a few correctable issues.
But the proposal immediately met with protests from Palm Springs merchants worried that the multi-story complex would be a turn-off to tourists.
The Palm Springs Desert Resort Communities Convention & Visitors Authority initiated its own study. Benoit and Supervisor Marion Ashley met with members of the group and other Coachella Valley residents during a public forum in Palm Springs on March 26. The prevailing consensus on the jail was negative.
Benoit, whose district spans most of eastern Riverside County, told his colleagues today that after further review, he and Ashley decided the county could not afford to stay wedded to the project.
According to the supervisor, his foremost concern was tying up roughly $300 million in long-term debt for the new jail alone.
“If we continue on the path of building the hub jail, we're basically committing all our bonding capacity,'' Benoit said. “Smaller expansions of existing (detention) facilities could get us jail beds faster and at a much-reduced cost.''
The county has four jails -- the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside, the Southwest Detention Center in Murrieta, the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning and the Indio Jail.
Benoit said the latter appeared to have some of room for growth. Ashley said the old wings of the Smith facility could be upgraded, as well. Six hundred new beds were added to the jail in a two-year, $70 million expansion that was completed last spring.
Supervisor Jeff Stone said regardless of the fate of the hub jail, more correctional space was vital to ensure the sheriff is not forced to disgorge inmates because of federal directives against overcrowding.
“As the population grows, we're going to be kicking people out,'' he said. “I see a real mockery of justice in this county.''
Board Chairman Bob Buster, who represents District 1 -- including Lake Elsinore and Wildomar – said he wasn't comfortable “jettisoning" the hub jail project until the county was “sure we have some firm ground to go forward with other facilities.''
“We should look at all options,'' Benoit replied. “Nothing should be off the table in terms of available, reasonably priced alternatives.''
Based on his motion, the board voted to direct the Executive Office to draft an updated capital improvement plan.
A public hearing is scheduled April 26 on the plan to remove the jail from the top of the list of capital projects. --City News Service and Toni McAllister contributed to this report.