A Fresno-based construction company was awarded the $39 million contract to build a 230-bed jail for Tuolumne County, something local taxpayers will be paying off over the next 30 years.

Applause broke out after the county Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to approve awarding the contract to Harris Construction Co. Inc. County Administrator Craig Pedro assured the board that the weight of the responsibility that lies ahead is well understood.

“Your board has made it really clear that this is the biggest capital project we’ve ever done, and there’s always risks in everything,” Pedro said. “We’ve heard as staff that what you expect of us is nothing less than excellence as we proceed into this project.”

“The board will hold you to that,” replied Board Chairwoman Sherri Brennan, who represents District 1.

Several high-ranking county officials have spent a large part of their careers working to make the project a reality. Talks about a new jail that would be located outside of downtown Sonora date back to the early 1990s.

A Tuolumne County Sheriff’s complex that would include a jail and juvenile hall was proposed in 2000, though it later morphed into the Law and Justice Center that’s in development off Old Wards Ferry Road.

The new jail will replace the 147-bed facility at 175 Yaney Avenue in downtown Sonora. Construction is to begin in March if the state of California approves the contract.

Two state grants will cover $33 million of the construction costs, while the county will be on the hook for the rest.

The county will have to pay a total of about $19 million for costs associated with the jail and other Law and Justice Center projects not covered by the state grants, nearly $3.5 million more than projected in August as part of the 2017-18 fiscal year budget.

Pedro said the lowest bid for the jail construction contract was $2.7 million higher than estimated, which he blamed largely on a six-month delay in getting plans approved by the state.

To cover the costs of the Law and Justice Center projects as well as others to upgrade the county’s outdated Information Technology systems, the county is looking at borrowing nearly $23 million that will be paid off over the next 30 years.

That will almost triple the county’s current debt of about $12 million.

County Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista said the borrowing will also more than double the county’s annual debt payments, which are now just under $1 million. She said the new jail is necessary due to the liability risks posed by the existing one, but acknowledged that it will put a strain on county finances.

“This boom of building certainly puts a strain on the county,” Bautista said.

The county opened the $20 million Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility at the Law and Justice Center in April, $16 million of which was covered by a state grant.

Annual reports by the Tuolumne County Grand Jury over the past decade or so have routinely criticized the existing jail as antiquated and a safety risk to both jail staff and inmates. The jail was originally constructed in the early 1960s.

District 3 County Supervisor Evan Royce, who owns a company that builds custom homes, announced before the vote on the construction contract that he was recusing himself due to a financial conflict of interest with one of the listed subcontractors.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.