San Diego County supervisors Tuesday endorsed a $420-million construction program for new jails and courthouses, but put off for at least another month the politically sensitive issue of deciding where to get the money.
Supervisor George Bailey's plan to ask county voters for a half-cent-a dollar increase in the sales tax to pay for the construction inched forward when the board gave him the authority to draw up language that could be placed on the ballot as soon as June 3.
But the supervisors, reluctant to go on record supporting a tax increase except as a last resort, asked the county staff to return in January with a report on how much of the construction could be paid for without asking the voters for a tax increase.
Either approach would be a means to easing chronic overcrowding in the court and jail systems. With no courtrooms to spare, the county has no place to put the nine judges the state Legislature has already approved, and more judicial positions are expected to be approved in the years to come. The jail system has been averaging about 900 inmates a day more than the county has room for.
"The board decided today that they are going to solve this problem one way or another," said David Janssen, the county's acting chief administrative officer. "They have reduced the options to two."
Sheriff John Duffy, who for years has complained that the county board has been too slow to pay for new jails, said he was "delighted" by the board's action.
"I couldn't be happier," Duffy said. "We're light-years ahead of where we were three months ago. The board has said we're going to construct these facilities all at one time. They've said, 'We may disagree on exactly what way to do it, but we're going to do it.' "
Duffy said he also is pleased by a commitment the board made Tuesday to book prisoners at the regional jails in Chula Vista and El Cajon, starting as early as next year. He said the change will save valuable time sheriff's deputies now spend transporting inmates from the central jail downtown to the suburbs.
Although Duffy and others said they were impressed by the unanimity of the board's decision, the five supervisors' agreement Tuesday appeared to be a fragile one. As Supervisor Susan Golding said, "We've agreed to disagree."
What she meant was that she had agreed not to oppose Bailey's efforts to put the proposal for a sales tax increase on the ballot while Bailey supported her efforts to scrape together enough money from other sources to head off the need for a tax increase.
Bailey's plan would ask voters to increase the sales tax to 6.5%, from the current 6%, for five years. The money raised would then be used for construction to ease overcrowding in the jails and to build courtrooms.
But Bailey is finding it difficult to persuade other lawmakers to support his plan. Some politicians will not endorse a tax increase for any purpose, and others, acting San Diego Mayor Ed Struiksma among them, have already committed themselves to an effort to increase the sales tax by a percentage point to pay for new roads and mass transit projects. Others believe that it would be almost impossible to garner the two-thirds vote needed to increase the sales tax for jail and courthouse construction.
Golding, who opposes a tax increase, instead supports the issuance of what are called "certificates of participation," which do not require voter approval. Under such a plan, the county would issue the certificates to raise money to build the jails and courtrooms, the ownership of which would rest with a nonprofit corporation or private company. The county would then lease back the buildings, making payments over a period of time and finally assuming ownership of the facilities.
Golding said she thinks the certificates could be used immediately to construct a 350-bed honor camp and an expansion of Juvenile Hall. Other projects, she said, could be funded through a combination of downtown redevelopment money, increased surcharges on fines the county levies, the sale of surplus county land, and the county's share of a statewide bond issue.
Although Bailey's proposal would involve paying cash to build the buildings, Golding's plan would leave the county with a debt or lease payments estimated to reach $50 million or more each year for as long as 30 years.
The board directed Janssen to return in January with a report on how much of the $420-million construction costs could be paid for through the proposals backed by Golding. At the same meeting, Bailey will present his ballot language and ask the board to officially endorse his proposal as a ballot measure.