Calaveras jail planning close to paying off

April 02, 2008 12:00 am

Calaveras County deserves credit for staying cool in a crisis.

Its Board of Supervisors last week bought the second and final piece of property needed for a new jail, clearing the way for state funding to supplement proceeds from a bond issue approved by county voters last year.

On April 23 Sheriff Dennis Downun will make a presentation before the state corrections board, and within a week the county should get word on the $27 million in funding it has asked. Based on need — the county now struggles by with a 65-bed, 45-year-old jail — Calaveras should get the cash.

But for a time it looked like the best-laid plans of county voters and their sheriff's office would go awry.

Those voters in November approved a $31 million bond issue to help build a new, 240-bed jail. But finding a site for the new lockup and a dispatch center turned out to be a problem.

The county had its eye on 57 acres next to the Government Center in San Andreas, but in January the owners rejected an initial offer and seemed reluctant to negotiate. When supervisors talked of condemnation, they all but dared the county to pull the trigger.

Administrators did the math, checked the calendar, and realized they were in a corner: As the property owners had pointed out, the time-consuming eminent domain process would have pushed the county beyond the Department of Corrections' deadline and would have left it empty-handed.

If there was any impulse to panic, Calaveras County's leaders resisted it.

They quickly came with a Plan B, under which the jail and dispatch center would be built on Government Center property already owned by the county. At the same time, the county staff ratcheted down the emotions and resumed negotiations with property owners Greg Opinski and Ryan Voorhees.

Persistence paid off. Calaveras first reached a deal with Opinski for his 28-acre parcel. Put in escrow was $1.9 million, with an agreement that if a new appraisal came out higher, the county will pay the difference.

Next, Voorhees and the county reached agreement on a $1.5 million sale price for his 29 acres.

Bottom line? The cash the county will pay for the site is not likely to be a whole lot more than its initial $3.47 million offer.

Sheriff Dennis Downum credits Brent Harrington with the acumen that pulled off the deals.

A retired Calaveras administrator, Harrington took the county helm on an interim basis after CAO Tom Mitchell left to take a similar job in Mendocino County. He began negotiations with the two property owners soon after voters passed Measure J and continued in that role after Robert Lawton — the new Calaveras administrator — came on board in January.

Maybe Harrington's 12 years as administrator and his 30 years of government experience paid off. He managed to resolve a potential stalemate and get the much-needed jail project back on track.

Right now the county's plight — its jail is far too small for its population of nearly 50,000 and criminals are regularly put back on street when there is no room at the 65-bed facility — is bad enough to make it a very good candidate for state cash.

But Sheriff Downum isn't counting his chickens. He points out that only three of 10 rural counties applying will get first-round funding from the state.

"I think we're in pretty good shape," he said. "Everybody involved with this project has done an excellent job and there's nothing I'd do differently.

Indeed, Calaveras County has the need, the property and the local bond-fund support. What's more, said Downum, if the state comes across with the requested $27 million, it will have more than enough for the entire project and might not have to sell all $31 million in bonds the voters authorized.

So far the script for this movie has been perfect, with moments of suspense punctuating a satisfying plot.

Now if state doesn't blow its lines, Calaveras County will get the happy ending it deserves.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.