Tuolumne County will have spent close to about $20 million in local taxpayer money to build a new jail by the time it opens in March or April, but may only be able to fill less than three quarters of the 230 beds.

The revelation that the jail, after more than 20 years in development, may be partially operational when it opens was made publicly in the midst of a loaded discussion about recommended cuts to the county budget at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 20.

While the county will hire the necessary staffing to fill all of the beds — five new sheriff’s deputies and four new jail clerks at cost of $670,000 per year moving forward — County Administrator Tracie Riggs explained the additional expense of housing more inmates is what’s holding them back from being able to use all of the beds.

Riggs said the state grants that funded $33 million of the $40 million in construction costs require the county to open 148 of the 230 beds, one more than the 147 beds at the existing jail, but the current recommendation is to open about 167 to 172 at first.

“The average cost for an inmate for a year is about $10,000 in medical care, then there’s the food, there’s other services, utilities, linens, laundry,” she said. “All of that will need to be increased as we look at increasing” the number of inmates at the jail.

The county pays $1.2 million under a contract with the California Forensic Medical Group to provide medical care for inmates at the current jail, as well as incarcerated minors at the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility.

If the new jail’s 230 beds were consistently full, the increased annual cost to the county for medical care alone would be $830,000 under the estimated average cost of $10,000 per inmate each year.

The Union Democrat has yet to receive a response to a request submitted on Aug. 21 for the total incarceration cost per inmate, including medical care, food, linens, and any other expenses incurred by the county to keep them locked up.

News about the jail may have gotten lost in the shuffle during the recent hearings on the county’s budget crisis due to $4.2 million shortfall in funding, but local political observers provided reactions ranging from it being an example of poor long-term planning and leadership to a need for more economic growth and development.

Marvin Keshner, a former executive at Hewlett-Packard who lives in Sonora, said he believes the lack of money to fully operate the new jail shows the county should be sentencing more people to community service for lower level crimes as opposed to incarceration.

“We’re spending too much money jailing people,” he said. “Not all of those people are genuine threats to public safety.”

Keshner acknowledged that some people need to be separated from the rest of society, such as those who commit violent crimes, but the majority of people incarcerated throughout the country are serving sentences for drug-related or nonviolent offenses.

The idea falls in line with what Riggs said at the Aug. 20 meeting about how the additional beds at the new jail will “add teeth” for the court and probation to incarcerate people who don’t follow through with alternative punishments like community service.

Riggs said the current jail doesn’t have the capacity to hold most people who fail to do community service or follow the terms of their probation.

Keshner said there’s a “tremendous need” in the county for labor that could be provided by people paying their debt to society by doing community service as opposed to being jailed, in particular with creating defensible space for fire protection around homes and communities.

“We could have community service where people know that they’ll go to jail if they don’t show up,” he said. “We can save a lot of money that way, while still adding a deterrent to doing bad things.”

Dave Titchenal, a former candidate for county supervisor and conservative who co-founded the local State of Jefferson group, was critical of past county officials and elected leaders for decisions that helped create the budget crisis.

Titchenal said while it’s “a shame” that about 25 percent of the new beds at the jail may have to remain empty when it opens, the county has to live within its means.

“I think it’s going to have to be less beds and slowly migrate from the old jail to the new jail as we can,” he said. “The problem is we haven’t gained in population, so we take on all this new stuff we needed — maybe not at this grand scale — and now we can’t afford it.”

Plans for the new jail date back to 1999, when former Sheriff Dick Nutting gave a presentation to county supervisors about the need.

The approximately 63,000-square-foot, more than $50 million jail that’s under construction is actually a scaled back version of 2008 proposal for a 93,334-square-foot facility that was estimated to cost $85 million.

Titchenal said his biggest issue with the county budget is the salaries and benefits for employees that he believes are too high, especially for top-level officials in management positions.

“Government was never meant to be a place where you live fat and live large,” he said.

One of Titchenal’s proposals to address the issue is by slashing salaries and benefits by 15 to 20 percent across the board for new county employees.

Titichenal was also critical of county supervisors who voted to increase their own salaries by 27 percent in September 2017, from $39,814 to $51,958 per year.

County Supervisors Karl Rodefer, John Gray, Sherri Brennan and former County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt voted in favor of the increase, citing how the salary was the second-lowest in the region and limited the pool of potential candidates.

Former County Supervisor Evan Royce voted against the increase.

Titchenal was also critical of the current board voting to give new Chief Public Defender Scott Gross an annual salary of $166,092, which was $34,051 more per year than the previous person in the position.

The purpose of the higher salary was to “increase the likelihood of a successful recruitment” for the position.

Rodefer, Gray, Brennan and first-year County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk voted in favor of the salary increase for the position, while first-year County Supervisor Ryan Campbell recused himself because his wife works for the county as a deputy public defender.

The higher salary for the public defender then led to the board voting in July to increase the annual salary for elected District Attorney Laura Krieg from $154,890 to $178,104, because she oversees a larger department with more work and responsibilities.

Campbell was the only supervisor to vote against Krieg’s increase because he questioned the size of it.

Titchenal said he was “heartened” to see that Riggs had recommended layoffs of three top-level officials as part of her plan to balance the budget. However, he believes she’s been placed in a position that’s “almost impossible to win.”

Riggs has served as county administrator since the start of the year after being hired by the board to replace former County Administrator Craig Pedro, who retired after 12 years as the longest to hold the position.

In addition to the jail, the county also doesn’t have enough money for the staffing needed to fill all of the 30 beds at the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility.

The facility can hold a maximum of 16 juveniles at a time, though the average daily population is about 11. A state grant covered $16 million of the facility’s construction costs, while the county paid about $4 million.

One way to help offset the costs of operating the facility, about $1.3 million per year, was to contract with other counties for housing their juvenile offenders.

Due to declining populations in juvenile halls across the state, however, many are undercutting each other’s prices. This has resulted in the county charging others $100 a night to house their juveniles, while the actual cost is closer to between $400 and $500.

Titchenal said he liked Kirk’s idea on Aug. 20 of the county moving forward with shutting down the juvenile hall as a strategy to bring the state to the negotiating table.

Legal advisors say the county would have to pay back the $16 million grant to the state if it unilaterally shut down the facility.

“Just continuing to keep it open because we’re afraid of doing something else, that’s not leadership,” Titchenal said. “We’ve got to take some really bold steps.”

Meanwhile, leaders in the business community say the current budget crisis and questions over the jail reinforces their longtime message that the county desperately needs more economic growth and development.

Ron Kopf, executive director of the Tuolumne County Business Council, said that growth could help provide more much-needed revenue for the county at a time when expenses are outpacing any gains.

Kopf said a continued lack of economic development will further threaten services like the jail to keep the community safe, in addition to other programs like youth center, the library and animal shelter.

“If people object to economic development under the auspices of it somehow adversely impacting our quality of life, what we’re seeing with the budget is if we don’t have economic development, it will impact our quality of life,” he said.

Lawsuits filed by citizens or environmental groups have delayed or prevented some projects from moving forward are in large part where Kopf points the blame.

One example Kopf cited was a lawsuit filed by the group Citizens for Responsible Growth against the proposed Stone Mill Center commercial development at the Pedro Wye, which he said is “absolutely” one of the reasons the project still hasn’t been built more than two years after being approved.

The group’s lawsuit was ultimately tossed by a judge, but not before costing the landowners more than $100,000 in legal fees.

“You hear things from groups about responsible growth, but they don’t define what responsible growth is,” Kopf said. “All these projects get held up in lawsuits that prevent our ability to provide economic development and revenue.”

Kopf said two projects in the Highway 120 corridor — the proposed Terra Vi Lodge and Under Canvas luxury “glamping” resort — would provide additional revenue from tourists, but are facing opposition from neighbors and environmental groups.

The county’s recently proposed layoffs of people in the Community Resources Agency, including its director David Gonzalves, could also make it more difficult to attract economic development if takes longer to process projects as anticipated.

If delays in the process make a housing project more expensive, for example, Kopf said those costs then get pushed down to the consumer in the form of higher home prices.

“It impacts our stakeholders in our county because they’re paying higher costs to buy that product because it costs more to bring that to market,” he said.

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