Tuolumne County needs a new jail and should look at further cutting compensation for county employees, according to the county’s 2012 Civil Grand Jury report.
The grand jury released this year’s report on Monday, focusing on a collection of local agencies and institutions and recommending actions for issues among those agencies.
The county jail situation and public employee compensation were among the largest issues taken on this year.
The grand jury consisted of 19 local citizens who volunteered for the task. The panel every year is required to review the county jail and Sierra Conservation Center, the state prison near Jamestown, and is then free to investigate any other local public entity.
Citizen complaints, jury interest and discussion among jurors can all influence which agencies the panel investigates.
The 120-page report details the county’s current predicament when it comes to its jail, one that has been a common discussion point among local leaders for years. The current, 140-bed facility is “sorely outdated” and conditions there “make housing and working conditions inadequate” for staff and inmates, according to the report.
With last year’s AB 109 to bring longer-term inmates to the jail for more severe crimes, the report points out those issues will become more pressing. The grand jury also points out physical degradation occurring at the county jail, including plumbing in disrepair, water damage to the walls and aging digital recording equipment.
However, the report also recognizes the county’s funding situation. A new building is estimated to cost more than $48 million, even after plans for the jail were scaled back, and the county missed out on the latest round of state funding for the jail.
“The community as a whole needs to know what they are facing,” the report states.
The grand jury recommended the county place jail building maintenance high on its priorities for spending, seek any possible state funds and adapt plans for longer inmate stays. It also recommends a public video detailing the jail’s deficiencies for presentation to the public.
Tuolumne County Sheriff James Mele, who has voiced similar concerns, said on Monday that nothing in the report “really shocked me” when first reading it.
“What needs to happen is the public and the government (both state and local) ... need to come up with some kind of funding source to help see if we can get a new facility,” Mele said.
Though the report did not suggest where to find the money for the jail, it did give a considerable amount of space to recommended cuts in employee compensation. In the report, the grand jury points out county employees accepted between 7 and 14.5 percent in recent years, including five to 15 furlough days a year and cuts to health, pensions and other benefits.
But the report states that the average county employee makes about $94,530 a year with pay and benefits. The report also states that county employees earn benefit packages that are as much as 100 to 150 percent higher than employees in the private sector, and suggests that cutting benefits by 10 percent would save the county $2.6 million a year.
However, grand jurors also recommended reconsidering some cuts to the Office of Revenue Recovery, such as three weeks of furloughs a year and downsizing an accountant from full to part time, since the cuts reduce revenue collection.
In the report, the grand jury also warns about underfunding its obligation to the state retirement fund and points out the county’s total unfunded, long-term liabilities surpass $230 million.
“The County should negotiate with representatives of bargaining units to come up with a plan to reduce benefits by a significant percentage,” the report states.
Other recommendations include looking into a 401-K style plan over the state pension system, self-insuring for health plans and standardizing paid leave between bargaining groups, eliminating payouts for accumulated leave and abolishing furloughs for further concessions and additional personnel cuts.
“It must be noted that the trend across the country, which includes federal, state and local governments, is a downward spiral into an increasing debt load for future generations,” the report states. “The jury hopes that county employees will recognize this trend and, while painful, make additional sacrifices necessary to reduce debt within our local community.”
Other recommendations by the 2012 Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury related to county operations include prioritizing spending to allocate more funds for road maintenance and hiring a full-time risk management official to oversee safety training and keep workers compensation in check.
Maureen Frank, deputy county administrator, said this morning that benefits and pay for county employees is a “very complex” subject that is hard to “wrap your arms around.” She said the report tried hard to get the details and figures straight, but that she wished there was more explanation of steps the county has already made in that regard.
Frank pointed out that county leaders have discussed county liabilities multiple times, and she said county employees have given generous concessions while taking on more work.
“Tuolumne County has taken this very seriously … and is putting a proactive plan together to try to address those liabilities,” she said. “But what is the right balance?”