Merced County denied money for new jail

12/13/2013 9:48 PM

12/13/2013 11:53 PM

Merced County has been denied millions of dollars in state funding to build a new jail facility, according to an announcement on the state agency’s website.

The county competed with 10 other medium-sized counties for a total of $160 million from state Senate Bill 1022 and the Board of State and Community Corrections. Merced County ranked second to last in the agency’s funding recommendations, followed by Monterey County.

The money would have been used to build a new 432-bed facility at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility on Sandy Mush Road and close the 45-year-old Main Jail in Merced. The project depended on the county receiving $40 million from SB 1022 and $28 million from the county.

The total cost of the project was estimated at about $67.8 million, according to documents.

The top four counties awarded funding were Santa Cruz with $24.6 million, Santa Barbara with $38.9 million, Solano with $23 million and Tulare with $40 million.

Tracie Cone, spokeswoman for the Board of State and Community Corrections, said the counties were ranked using criteria such as demonstration of funds available to pay for the project and staffing needs, having the land available, completing environmental studies and other documents.

Counties were ranked from zero to four, with four being the highest score. Merced County received a zero, according to the evaluation results.

Cone said demonstration of funds was most important factor because counties needed to prove they had the money to start projects right away. Counties that didn’t meet that requirement were generally given a zero.

“We wanted to make sure these projects were shovel-ready,” Cone said. “It’s very important to the governor that these projects get moving so there is program space. The aim is to reduce recidivism and the revolving door at jails.”

Robert Oates, project director of the Board of State and Community Corrections, said Merced County didn’t satisfy two of four key criteria – demonstrating available funds and meeting the environmental requirements.

“If you cannot pass that first hurdle for the funding, then the following three were not counted,” Oates said Friday. “Merced County’s point total wasn’t as high as other counties. It’s not that the need isn’t there or that someone else’s need is greater.”

Officials from the Merced County Sheriff’s Department in August pleaded their case for a new jail by showing county supervisors numerous photos of broken-down walls and ceilings at inmate dorms at Sandy Mush.

They said the Sandy Mush facility is not equipped for housing high-risk inmates. In one year, there were 280 inmate assaults, 87 riots, 23 assaults on jail employees and seven escapes at both county jails, according to documents.

County officials agreed a new jail is necessary, but some wondered how the county will come up with the large sum needed to fund the project.

“I’m concerned where $28 million will come from,” said board Chairwoman and District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey during the Aug. 27 meeting. “But I guess we’ll look at that if we get the grant.”

County Management Analyst Mike North on Friday said the county is disappointed with the state’s decision but will be open to future funding opportunities.

“The grant is something we were excited about and we’re disappointed in the results,” North said. “This is something that would have helped us deal with the influx of AB 109 (prison realignment law) prisoners, but we’ll continue to be open to future funding opportunities to better secure our facilities.”

The news of the grant denial comes on the heels of an abrupt announcement by Sheriff Mark Pazin on Thursday that he was leaving office to accept a position with the governor’s administration.

During a news conference Friday, Pazin called the decision “frustrating” and praised the team that put together the paperwork to apply for the funding.

“There was a lot of questions, a lot of head scratching, but we’ll find out where we can improve and we’ll bounce back,” Pazin said. “I was really hoping the BSCC would see our plight, but it just shows you how dilapidated and dingy facilities are at the county level all over the state.”

Pazin acknowledged there are “other funding mechanisms” available to bring the project together, but declined to name those sources or elaborate.

Jeff Miller, a correctional officer and spokesman for the Merced County Sheriff’s Employee Association, reacted Friday to news of the grant denial and Pazin’s sudden plan to leave office.

“The announcement of Sheriff Pazin’s departure and new job in Sacramento comes as no surprise to those of us at the Merced County Sheriff’s Employee Association,” Miller said. “It would appear the tremendous amount of time he has spent in Sacramento on the taxpayer’s time and money has paid off for him.

“Pazin gets a six-figure job in Sacramento,” he continued, “the citizens are left with dilapidated overcrowded jail facilities.”

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