The county Board of Supervisors is on a prudent path in its plan to replace the current downtown jail. The board is expected to approve a ballot measure this week for the June election to impose a quarter-cent sales tax to build a new jail on the southeast end of town, largely replacing the aging and decrepit facility in downtown Napa.
This is smart, timely, unarguably necessary, and we urge all Napa County voters to support the measure.
Even if it were fully restored after the severe damage it took in the 2014 earthquake, the current jail is simply unfit for continued use. It is overcrowded, outdated, and poses a clear safety threat to prisoners and staff alike. It cannot be brought up to anything like modern standards, either for holding prisoners or attempting to rehabilitate them.
The plan the supervisors will consider on March 8 calls for a 256-bed jail on a county-owned land off Highway 221. A small residual facility of about 55 beds will remain downtown. The county has nearly $40 million saved up, either in cash or in the form of grants, and it needs about $68 million more. The 10-year tax would bring in an estimated $8 million per year, covering the remaining cost of the jail, plus any interest incurred in upfront borrowing to pay for construction.
The proposal is for a general tax, which requires a simple majority vote, meaning that the money could, in theory, be spent on anything. It might have been preferable to have a special-purpose tax, directed exclusively for jail construction, but that would require a two-thirds approval by voters and county officials believe there would not be sufficient votes to reach such a threshold.
We believe the public can trust the county in this case. The supervisors have acted in complete good faith in this matter so far, dedicating surplus cash upfront to reduce the burden on future taxpayers. The supervisors also listened to the public and scaled back from an earlier 366-bed proposal after polling and focus groups suggested that voters were disinclined to fund such a large plan.
This is an issue that must be dealt with. The people housed in and working in the jail are, for the most part, county residents. The prisoners inside will one day, sooner rather than later, return to our streets and neighborhoods. The current jail lacks the space and facilities to deal with problems of mental illness and addiction, and to provide rehabilitation and life-skills programs to ensure these people return to our neighborhoods equipped to become productive members of society.
But the issue goes far beyond the needs of prisoners and correctional officers. Until this jail issue is resolved, many other key county initiatives will not proceed. The Register’s editorial board met with County Executive Nancy Watt and her staff recently, and it was clear that they are genuinely and rightly concerned that time is running out to deal with this on our terms. All it would take is one successful lawsuit by a prisoner to put the timing, nature, and cost of replacing the jail in the hands of a judge, who may or may not act with the same fiscal prudence that the supervisors have shown.
That means that essential staff time and virtually every dollar of extra money is being allocated to jail replacement now, putting other important projects farther back in the line. That has important ripple effects. For example, the plan to move virtually all county offices to the former Dey Labs facility is on hold until the jail issue is finished. That means the county will continue to occupy the aging eyesore of the Carithers Building in downtown Napa for the foreseeable future.
That, in turn, leaves the city government and downtown developers spinning their wheels on the future of key sites, including Dwight Murray Plaza and the Kohl’s department store.
We understand how hard it is to digest yet another tax. Already, we are paying the 1998 flood control sales tax, soon to be replaced with a road maintenance tax. On the ballots this year are likely to be taxes or bond measures for Napa Valley Unified School District school construction and repair, upgrades at Napa Valley College, and parks and open space preservation. And that’s on top of proposed hikes in sewer rates in the Napa Sanitation District.
This jail issue, however, should be viewed on its own merits. This is a pressing problem that must be solved, and it must be solved now, on our terms. We urge the supervisors to approve this tax measure and voters to support it.