SANTA ANA — The Orange County government cupboards have never been more bare.
In May, voters rejected a sales tax increase to pay for jails. Last week, a new study concluded that building a jail in Gypsum Canyon, near Anaheim Hills, would cost taxpayers more than $119 million every year and ruefully noted that the county has no way to pay for it.
Those facts, taken together and packaged in a report and briefings to the Board of Supervisors, last week rocked the three-vote coalition that has kept the Gypsum Canyon jail proposal alive year after year. Based largely on the latest financial analysis, two of three county supervisors who have long supported the canyon jail to relieve overcrowding now say they are losing hope.
The Board of Supervisors will formally receive the report Tuesday. And although most observers believe that the supervisors will keep their options open for Gypsum Canyon--and will not vote, for instance, to abandon the site--nearly everyone is convinced that the political support for the project is quickly and irreversibly eroding.
That will leave the supervisors to contemplate unpleasant choices in the coming months as they reopen the county government's most vexing debate.
"I'm very discouraged about the numbers," said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, a longtime Gypsum Canyon supporter. "But I think we need to be patient and study these new figures."
Riley and some other supporters of the canyon jail said they hope that the discussion of the report Tuesday does not lead board members to make a dramatic change in course--at least not yet. Most supporters would prefer to wait until after Gov. Pete Wilson has decided whether to sign legislation now sitting on his desk that would make it easier for the board to condemn land for a jail.
Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, a Gypsum Canyon supporter who last week indicated a willingness to discuss moving on to other options, was also being urged by jail supporters to refrain from abandoning Gypsum Canyon until after Wilson makes his decision. "I don't want to preempt the governor," she said, suggesting that she too will likely hold off for now.
While the project may be butting up against its $1-billion-plus price tag, changing course has its consequences too. That would leave the supervisors in essentially the same place they were in 1987, when they picked Gypsum Canyon as the best place for a new county jail.
Despite progress on expanding the existing jails, the past four years have seen the supervisors spend more than $7.3 million planning for the canyon jail, and their options remain limited, expensive and controversial. They include:
* Expanding an existing program that provides alternatives to incarceration for minor offenders.
* Double-bunking the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange.
* Expanding the James A. Musick Branch Jail near Irvine.
* Expanding the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana or building a new facility near it.
* Building a new jail at the corner of Katella Avenue and Douglass Road in Anaheim.
* Going to the desert, picking a spot there and building a new regional jail.
One option that the county does not have, officials and experts on all sides of the jail debate agree, is to do nothing. Almost all observers agree that the jail system is badly overcrowded, with more than 4,400 inmates typically jammed into cells built for 3,203.
Overcrowding has gotten so bad that 850 inmates are released early every week.
"People have a tendency to forget the crisis when it passes," Sheriff Brad Gates said last week. "But we're still left over here 24 hours a day, trying to deal with people who have violated the law and find a place in this system for them. And we're still putting 850 people on the street every week."
If, as appears increasingly likely, the supervisors come to the conclusion that they cannot afford to build a jail at Gypsum Canyon, they are likely to confront their share of troubles.
Some of the short-term steps would probably go smoothly, officials say. The county, for instance, is aggressively expanding its alternatives-to-incarceration program, putting more prisoners in home confinement or under electronic surveillance.
Also, work will go ahead on the current expansion of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail, taking that from a 620-bed facility to one of about 1,200 beds. That project has already been approved and is under way.
"Those kinds of things will give us a comfort zone of, I would say, from about two to four years," said Dan Wooldridge, an aide to Supervisor Don R. Roth, who opposes the Gypsum Canyon jail. "That will give us some time."
Meanwhile, county officials would have to sketch out the next steps, a slate of politically difficult and financially challenging jail expansions.
Those ideas are already being talked about in private conversations throughout the Hall of Administration and between board members. Some are more controversial than others, but none is expected to be feasible for at least a year or two.
The Theo Lacy Option