Napa County is pouring about $11 million into maintaining and remodeling a deteriorating downtown Napa jail that it would rather be demolishing to make room for commercial development.
The county wants to build a 366-bed jail as soon as possible along Highway 221 near the Syar quarry. It wants to replace a 264-bed downtown jail that county officials say is too small and not designed for today’s inmate population.
But the county is scrambling to find $68 million to build only the first phase of a new jail, one that might have only 96 beds. That won’t be big enough to dispense with the downtown jail.
Like it or not, the county appears to be stuck with the downtown jail at 1125 Third St. for the foreseeable future. It will spend millions of dollars on security systems, remodeled cells and perhaps new elevators, even as it faces a funding gap in the $12 million range for that first phase of a new jail.
“I would say in a perfect world, we would have preferred to be putting all of this money into the new jail,” Public Works Director Steven Lederer said.
Director of Corrections Lenard Vare agreed. He simply doesn’t see a choice, given the old jail is wearing out and is still needed. The timing of having a new jail ready before major repairs were needed at the old jail didn’t work out.
“Today, we’re basically at the point where there’s no way to get out of fixing these things,” Vare said. “We have inmates there … Life and safety issues come into play.”
One county official has compared the situation to changing planes, something that is done at the airport, Vare said. But the old plane is still in the air with 300 passengers on board and the engine is falling apart, he said.
“Unfortunately, we have to make repairs in the air while we’re waiting for the new plane,” Vare said.
The county built the downtown Napa jail in 1976 for $4 million and added an $8 million second phase in 1989. County officials say the jail was designed for a different type of inmate population in a different era, one with less violent offenders and fewer offenders dealing with mental health issues.
Lederer said a $6.5 million remodel of the jail basement is underway and should be completed by year’s end. An area with dormitory style accommodations for 30 inmates will be replaced with cells for 60 maximum security inmates.
That dorm-style area was built to house low-level offenders, Vare said. He can find maybe 12 people to put there, given many inmates must be separated because of their gang histories or because they have mental health issues.
The new arrangement will be safer for correctional officers and offenders, he said.
Meanwhile, the county is relocating about 30 inmates to the Solano County jail during the remodeling project. That estimated $1.8 million expense for the 2016-17 fiscal year that began in July is on top of the $6.5 million construction costs, a county report said.
Another downtown jail project is spending $2.5 million to improve the jail security cameras and the control room where corrections officials can control elevators and doors in the facility.
“If that fails, we have a big, critical situation,” Vare said.
The 2014-15 grand jury came to the same conclusion. It said the “marginally operational” control room in the downtown jail needs to be upgraded while a new jail is constructed.
Elevators are also a problem in the downtown jail. The county estimates it might spend a million dollars replacing a freight operator and security elevator. The Board of Supervisors has yet to grant approval.
The large freight operator is used to transport pallets of food to the basement kitchen to prepare 800 to 900 meals daily. The county every few years makes emergency repairs to the elevator, most recently last year when it spent about $68,000.
When the freight elevator is broken, inmate workers take the food supplies from the pallets and carry them downstairs using a smaller elevator in a different section of the jail, a county report said.
The security elevator has two sections, one for correctional officers and one for inmates who are being restrained, Vare said. It might be used 500 times a day and among other things moves inmates who are going to the adjacent courts for hearings.
Another million dollars could go to a fire smoke sealing project that involves the downtown jail ventilation systems. Lederer called this a “preventative safety issue.”
In addition to this $11 million in downtown jail spending, the county had to repair the building after the August 2014 South Napa earthquake.
That earthquake repair bill came to $2 million, with $1.8 million coming from insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Lederer said. The county paid for a small amount of remodeling.
Voters last summer turned down the Measure Y quarter-cent sales tax measure to raise money for a 256-bed, $103 million first phase of the new jail. But even if the measure had passed, the downtown jail still would have likely undergone repairs.
For example, Vare said the downtown jail still would need working elevators for the several years it takes to build a new jail. Lederer noted the security system and basement remodeling projects have been planned for several years.
All of this is the price Napa County pays to keep the jail it has running while it waits for the jail of its dreams.