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Santee Goes for Broke to Fight New County Jail

May 23, 1986|H.G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

SANTEE — City Manager Ronald Ballard cringes at the thought. If San Diego County officials have their way, "a veritable prefabricated concentration camp--complete with gun towers and barbed wire" may one day loom ominously behind this city's planned civic center.

How will Ballard explain the guarded compound to the "banks and IBM types" who are being asked to relocate downtown and complement the much-ballyhooed Town Center that will showcase Santee's redevelopment?

"We're talking about a completely new and modern town with a jail right smack in the middle," Ballard said with genuine concern. "We're actually recruiting banks and IBM types. What am I going to tell them as I'm showing them around town: 'Don't worry about the gun towers. The guards have been told not to shoot at people in business suits. And, please, ignore the barbed wire.' "

Santee, a fast-growing community of 59,000, finds itself involved in two high-profile controversies these days. Local residents are expected to adopt a measure on the June 3 ballot designed to keep adult entertainment establishments out of this conservative East County town. The drive to ban these businesses began in 1984.

The second controversy began only two months ago as city and business leaders united with residents to fight the county's plan to build a 600-bed jail in Santee.

"I think we're being very consistent if you ask me," said a grinning Ballard. "We were joking the other day that Santee doesn't want adult bookstores nor adult jails."

The Board of Supervisors approved construction of the $9.4-million jail in March. The facility's 600 beds are designed as a quick fix to ease overcrowding in the county's six jails.

"We're calling it a concentration camp," said Ballard. "And that isn't too bad of a description for it."

The new jail would consist of 19 prefabricated dormitory buildings that would be constructed near the middle of the 700-acre parcel targeted for redevelopment.

A while back, the county agreed to work with the city on developing Town Center, a mix of residential, commercial and office buildings on land owned by the county, city and private concerns. The county-owned parcel, where the jail and civic center would be built, had been deemed surplus when the Town Center proposal was first drafted.

Santee, which is already home to the Las Colinas women's jail, was chosen over sites in Descanso and the Otay landfill because it is the only location with sewers and other utilities already in place. The jail is supposed to be constructed by December, but the proposed county budget for 1986-87 does not include funds for it.

Ballard said that, if the county builds the men's jail, it will bring financial ruin to the city.

In a "summary of points"--arguments raised by the city to fight the proposed jail--local officials charge that the facility would "reduce property values and economic desirability" and jeopardize a $6.4-million bond issue to finance the Town Center development.

Woodie Miller, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, argues that the jail would hit Santee with a "devastating blow that could very well be the city's death knell." If Miller's rhetoric sounds alarmist, well, consider the following argument in the city's summary of points:

"In addition to the inmate population, the facility will draw families and friends . . . as visitors to the site throughout the week. In many instances, these visitors themselves have criminal backgrounds. In the case of the sentenced inmates, their families will probably want to move into Santee to be closer to the jail site. Without prejudice to these misfortunate families, they will inevitably need to settle in low-income rental housing and thereby increase an undesirable housing market."

While county officials say that Santee was picked primarily because the utilities are already in place, some Santee officials believe that their city's "poor self-image" had a lot to do with the supervisors' decision to build a jail here.

"Let's face it. Santee has suffered from a poor self-image," Ballard said. "In the past it was a convenient place to dump mediocre development. If you couldn't build it in Del Mar, no problem, build it in Santee. The county never cared what was built here. Well, we're doing everything to change the image that the rest of the county has of us. It's no longer just cowboy boots and pickup trucks. We have our share of yuppies here, too."

Ballard and Miller also believe that county officials are not being truthful when they say the jail will house only 600 inmates. Both men charge that, as the county continues to grow and jail overcrowding continues, the facility will eventually house as many as 2,000 inmates.

The jail, which has been designated a medium-security facility, will hold inmates awaiting trial and others serving as long as a year in the county jail.

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