If you have never visited the Tuolumne County jail, the Sheriff’s offices, or Probation, count yourself fortunate. Not only are the usual reasons for a visit generally unfortunate, but if you’ve been there, you know that they are seriously out of space.
Probation is overflowing their building on Washington St., various divisions of the Sheriff’s Dept. are located around Sonora and even in Columbia, and the jail is so crowded that they have to release “less serious” offenders to make room. Our law enforcement agencies are in a bind.
Beginning in the early nineties, Tuolumne County grand juries and the Board of Supervisors identified a need to build a new jail and a new Sheriff’s office for admin, investigators, and deputies. Studies have been done confirming that need. The State is under court-order to reduce overcrowding in the prisons and has informed the County that it will be returning some folks home to the County jail, compounding things. Subsequent studies have shown that there is also a serious space shortage for Probation and the Courts. Since co-locating the Courts and the jail makes sense, their space needs have been added to that of the Sheriff.
Why this particular property?
For the last 5 years or so, staff has been evaluating 7 potential sites located in the area based on certain criteria for access, potential expansion, proximity to Sonora, buildability, etc. For a number of reasons (including the presence of hazardous materials, insufficient acreage, location, and more), other sites have been eliminated and the Gardella property adjacent to Hwy 108 (behind and across the highway from Wal-Mart) is now the front-runner.
Isn’t $4.2 million a lot for that property?
Yes, it’s a lot of money. And yes, I have been telling folks about our tight budget. What you need to know is that the funds for this project are already within the County coffers and can’t be spent on General Fund department expenditures.
As I understand it, the funds were generated by Courts and other fees and have been accumulating for just such a purpose. We can cover the purchase price if this is indeed the property we want to purchase, and then begin saving designated fees for the special purpose of building the new jail, Sheriff’s offices, and Probation as the first phase of the project.
The conceptual plans for a Law & Justice Center call for it to be built in phases over the next 20 or so years. Funding the construction will be a huge challenge. There is some state funding available that could build most of the jail and Sheriff’s office, but it comes with strings that are probably not in the best interest of the County.
I spoke with Congressman Radanovich last weekend and he said he would be willing to work on getting a federal appropriation approved to fund at least part of the construction. So while there are options, nothing is for sure yet except that before we do anything, we need to find the right property.
For more info
I would encourage you to attend the November 6th Board meeting or watch it on Channel 8 that evening to learn more about the needs of our law enforcement folks and how the site measures up, if it does.
In short, the proposed action on November 6th is to approve or deny the purchase of the 40-odd acre parcel only. If the Board decides to approve the purchase, the deal will be contingent on the site passing the necessary environmental requirements – a process that will take a year or more.
I don’t have a sense of the outcome and like many of you, look forward to hearing more about it on the 6th – stay tuned!