County May Seek Sales Tax Increase to Help Finance $65-Million Jail

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County officials are preparing to ask voters possibly as early as November to approve a half-cent sales-tax increase to help finance a new $65-million to $70-million county jail.

While County Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg said the proposal is still embryonic, some civic and business leaders fear it could conflict with a half-cent transportation sales-tax measure that also may appear on the November ballot.

"There could be a potential for conflict, and I think this clouds things to some extent," said Dick Fausset, chairman of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn.'s Transportation Committee. "Certainly the timing is not good."

The association has been amassing support for the transportation measure for a year, and next week expects to release a poll showing that voters favor the increase to pay for new roads, improvements to old roads and public transit. Fausset said the survey also polled voters about whether they would prefer to increase taxes for roads or jails. He declined to release the results.

At the county's request, state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) introduced a bill last month that would allow Ventura County to place a half-cent jail sales-tax proposal before voters.

If both measures end up on the ballot, voters could face sales taxes increasing from six cents to seven cents per dollar.

"Everybody realizes the problem we're going to have if we go to the voters with two proposals," said county Supervisor Maggie Erickson, who is on the ad-hoc jail committee. "Somewhere along the line, we're going to have to take a hard look at what's the best strategy."

While it's too early to gauge support for a jail sales-tax increase, some officials said, a tax increase would stand a better chance with voters than would a general obligation bond. A tax increase requires approval by a majority of voters; a bond requires two-thirds approval.

Most county officials agree that a new or expanded jail is needed. The Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved hiring five new employees at an annual cost of $342,000 as a transition team and nucleus for a new jail's staff.

To qualify for $40 million in available state funds, the county must pick a site and start construction by autumn of 1990.

Most county supervisors and Sheriff John Gillespie want to build a new $60-million, campus-style jail holding up to 2,000 inmates in a semi-rural or agricultural setting. They envision modular-style, medium-security buildings on 20 acres surrounded by 80 acres of open space.

The jail would include recreational facilities for inmates and trade shops where prisoners could learn skills and do work to offset the cost of their imprisonment. Most county officials involved in planning for the jail say that such a long-range master plan would meet inmate needs for the next 20 years, a prerequisite to qualify for the state's $40 million.

But Supervisor John Flynn wants to build a 400-bed jail and a parking structure at the County Government Center and add 50 beds at the East Valley Sheriff's Station, 100 beds at the Honor Farm in Ojai and 150 at the work-furlough facility in Rose Valley, which is due to open in six weeks. Total cost would be $25 million.

Flynn said that as the inmate population grows, the county could expand its work-furlough programs and use alternatives such as electronic confinement, in which prisoners are monitored at home by electronic beepers.

"Logic dictates that when you add on to what you already have . . . your costs will be lower than going out and building a brand-new facility, with new roads and new sewers," said Flynn.

Other county officials maintain that Flynn's plan fails to meet long-term jail needs while still increasing staffing costs. Supervisors Madge Schaeffer and Maggie Erickson have assailed Flynn's figures as misleading and have said that it is cheaper to run one big facility than four small ones.

They and Gillespie contend that staffing and operations account for 90% of jail costs over a 20-year period and that Flynn's proposal would require more manpower than building a new, centralized jail that would accommodate future growth.

The county already has 933 beds at four locations. But Gillespie said Tuesday that those facilities are already overcrowded with 1,087 inmates. In some cases, two prisoners share jail cells meant for one, and some prisoners sleep on cots in day rooms.

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