Union Democrat staff

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors last week took a positive step in development of a new law and justice center off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora.

To include a juvenile hall, a new jail, offices for the district attorney and public defender, a larger Highway Patrol headquarters and a civil and criminal courthouse, the project is badly needed. Studies ranging back nearly two decades have warned that present offices are inadequate and, more recently, several grand juries have urged action. Last month the Planning Commission - after hearing from the DA, the chief probation officer, the county sheriff and Sonora's chief of police - endorsed the project.

Certification of the environmental impact report and approval of the required general plan amendment and rezonings, as recommended by County Administrator Craig Pedro, seemed the obvious course of action for supervisors.

So it was disappointing last week's vote was not unanimous. Had dissenting board members Teri Murrison and John Gray persuaded just one more supervisor to join them, the law and justice center project would have gone back to square one. The Gardella family-owned Old Wards Ferry Road property would have been off the table, immediately saving the county some $4.1 million ($100,000 in "earnest money" would have been lost).

The savings, however, would have been short lived: Because the county's proposed 30-bed juvenile detention facility would suddenly be without a site, the state would likely pull the $16 million in construction funds it promised last spring. Winning the money back would prove difficult if not impossible.

Then, a time-consuming search for a new law and justice center site - or many separate sites for its various components - would begin. Next would come a new EIR and, perhaps, opponents of the new location.

Much of the work would be repetitious, as Pedro and other county officials put a high priority on finding a centrally located site where neighbors would not complain.

Meanwhile, the clock would continue ticking, land and building prices would climb and existing facilities would continue to deteriorate.

Even the dissenting supervisors agree that the county's present and widely scattered law and justice buildings and offices are cramped, antiquated and inefficient. Parking, communication and access problems that have plagued these offices for years would only worsen if nothing is done.

Many are concerned with the project's estimated $253 million price tag, an otherworldly sum in these recession days.

But consider this: Pedro estimates that the state - because of the juvenile hall grant, jail construction funds, Sacramento's responsibility for the courts and other funding - will cover at least $163 million of tab.

It's important to remember that this significant, much-needed public works project is to be built over a long period of time as funding becomes available. We already know that the state would cover all of the courts building and the CHP headquarters costs, and nearly three-quarters of the juvenile hall price tag. As time goes on, more state and federal funds may well be available for other parts of the center, particularly the jail.

This massive infusion of state dollars will be of great benefit to our local economy, as the positive effect of construction dollars in any community is well documented.

As CAO Pedro told the board: "The need for the project is real. The property site is the right one - with no viable alternatives. The project can and will be responsibly funded over an extended period of time."

The next step will be an architectural design phase, which may take from 12 to 18 months. We salute county administrators and department heads for successfully bringing this beneficial project this far and staying focused on the ultimate goal.

The issue is clear; the need is compelling. We commend Supervisors Dick Pland, Liz Bass and Paolo Maffei for exercising the vision, foresight and leadership for the long-term benefit and interest of Tuolumne County.