Two approaches, two outcomesto jail funding

October 03, 2008 12:00 am

What's the best way to get state funding for a new jail?

The verdict is far from final, but at this point Calaveras County has a $26.4 million lead over its neighbor to the south. And Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele isn't happy about it.

No, Mele doesn't begrudge the funding his counterpart, Sheriff Dennis Downum, secured for the new Calaveras County lockup. Instead, he wishes County Administrator Craig Pedro had not passed on $13.6 million the California Corrections Standards Authority last month offered Tuolumne County just before last month's apparent deadline.

In fact, Mele's office issued a press release saying the decision "deals a significant blow to our efforts to build a new jail."

Pedro countered that the funding would be premature, as environmental review of a $266 million law and justice center proposed off Old Wards Ferry Road is still under way. Instead, he said, the county will apply for a larger amount of money in a second round of state jail funding.

Pedro stressed that the county needs a "responsible financial package" before accepting state aid. He added that the jail alone — when site work, infrastructure and other costs are factored in — could cost $100 million.

Mele didn't buy it, saying an ailing economy and competition from other counties might mean that no cash at all would come Tuolumne County's way in a second round.

But before this dispute could escalate further, the state extended its deadline until Oct. 30. This gives Pedro and Mele a chance to state their cases before the Board of Supervisors and, hopefully, emerge in agreement.

Both the sheriff and the CAO have their points.

Seth Unger, Department of Corrections press secretary, said the $13.6 million award was "tentative and conditional" and could remain in Tuolumne County's grasp pending environmental review. He added that more cash could have come the county's way in the $750 million first round if counties ahead of it don't meet qualifications.

The county has applied for $30 million.

Unger, however, added that $450 million more will be available in Round 2 and added that declining $13.6 million this time around won't count against Tuolumne County. But he pointed out that a second round of funding could be many months away.

This much is certain: Last week's dispute over whether the state cash should have been accepted is unlikely to increase the county's odds of success. Instead, it is evidence of internal discord and a lack of communication between two arms of the same government.

Now it is time for Pedro, Mele and the board to work together.

If they need any pointers, they could look to Calaveras County, which last November involved the public with a successful $31 million bond issue for a new jail and dispatch center. Then the Board of Supervisors bought land near the Government Center for the new complex. Finally, Downum applied for Round 1 funding, was awarded $10 million last spring and then, on Sept. 18, got $16.4 million more when another county fell out of the running.

Cooperation helped Calaveras reach its goals, and it can do the same for Tuolumne County. Pedro dismissed last week's spat as a "timing issue" and vowed that he and Mele are "very much in agreement" on all key points.

And, ideally, a full discussion of the issues before the Board of Supervisors can also resolve the timing issue as well.