With San Diego voters saying they don't want to pay a higher sales tax to fund new courts and jails, county supervisors on Wednesday began searching for another way to raise the money it will take to build criminal justice facilities needed through the year 2005.
Supervisor Susan Golding, who opposed the sales tax increase but did not actively campaign against it, said Wednesday she is prepared to retake the political initiative she yielded to Supervisor George Bailey, who got the sales tax measure on the ballot over her objections.
Proposition A, which would have increased the sales tax by half a cent on the dollar for five years, needed approval from two-thirds of the voters. It got barely more than a simple majority--50.75%.
Golding said she will ask the Board of Supervisors this month to explore a so-called public-private partnership to build at least one major jail where criminal suspects would be housed before their Municipal Court arraignments.
That project, which supervisors and Sheriff John Duffy have said is desperately needed to relieve chronic overcrowding at the county jails downtown and in Vista, Chula Vista and El Cajon, would cost an estimated $50 million.
Golding proposes that the jail be built by a private developer and leased back to the county. The lease payments would be funded through the issuance of "certificates of participation"--a form of revenue raiser that is similar to a government bond but does not require approval of the voters.
"I think we have to move forward to finance the facilities that are needed today as quickly as possible," Golding said, noting that the City of San Diego used a similar scheme to build its new police station downtown.
Golding said she would also propose that the county staff begin preparations for placing a bond measure on the ballot in 1988 to pay for jails and courthouses that can't be funded through any other means.
She said Los Angeles County voters' approval of a $96-million bond measure for jail construction Tuesday was evidence that voters are more likely to allow government to borrow money and charge it against their property taxes than to agree to a new or increased sales tax.
"I didn't think it would be easy even to pass a general obligation bond, but I thought it would be more difficult to pass an additional sales tax," Golding said. "Two-thirds of the vote on anything is not a piece of cake."
Golding's colleagues on the board, including Bailey, were reluctant Wednesday to commit to a new financing strategy, but said they were eager to pursue any tactic that would provide the $420 million county officials say is needed.
Bailey cautioned that the money borrowed through certificates of participation still must be repaid. Any money used to pay off such a debt would have to come out of the county's already spare operating budget, he said.
"Very simply, I'm willing to do anything if someone can show me where the money is coming from," Bailey said. "I will do anything to protect the safety of the people within the powers of my office."
Richard Robinson, director of special projects for the county, agreed that the dilemma isn't so much borrowing the money but paying it back.
"The problem isn't finding the financing technique, the problem is finding guaranteed sources of money to retire the debt," he said.
Supervisor Brian Bilbray said he was "willing to take a look" at Golding's proposal, but he said he doubted that a bond issue could win voter approval without increased support from city officials throughout the county.
"I think the council and the mayors are going to have heat put on them because their police departments aren't going to be doing anything but processing criminals, not keeping them off the streets," Bilbray said. "I think the public is going to become more aware that all the talk about law and order doesn't mean anything if you don't have cells to put the criminals in."
The San Diego City Council took the first step in that direction Wednesday when its Public Services and Safety committee directed the city's staff to confer with county officials on options for funding jail construction now that Proposition A has been defeated.
Ernie Anderson, consultant to the committee, said the city may seek a special joint session with the Board of Supervisors to discuss the issue.
"There's a continuing concern that, with the increasing crime rate and the increasing number of arrests we have, the folks we're arresting are going right back out on the streets and committing more crimes," Anderson said. "We've got to have some place to put them. It's understood that the county has primary responsibility for building the jails but it affects us dramatically, so we want to be part of the solution."