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Santa Barbara County supervisors allocate another $5M to cover rising cost of Northern Branch Jail
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Santa Barbara County supervisors allocate another $5M to cover rising cost of Northern Branch Jail

Another $5 million was allocated Tuesday for construction of the Northern Branch Jail, plus another $5.4 million was set aside for contingencies, this fiscal year by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

Up to $5.2 million more is expected to be plugged into next fiscal year’s budget to cover the escalating cost of the facility, county staff said at the meeting in Santa Maria.

Skip Grey, assistant director of the County Community Services Department, said the jail is about 98% complete, with final work expected to be done by June and jail staff and inmates occupying the facility by September.

However, the total cost is expected to balloon from the most recent estimate of $110.9 million up to $119 million or as much as $121 million due to a defunct contractor and a host of other delays and change orders, Grey said.

A Latin phrase atop the arched public entry to the new Northern Branch Jail sums up a philosophy that’s been incorporated not only into the way inmates will be treated but also into the very design of the facility. “I am the architect of my own future,” translated Thomas Jenkins, a retired San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office commander, as he led a tour of the facility Wednesday morning.

Jeff Frapwell, assistant county executive officer, said there is enough in the operating fund to loan that money to the project.

But county officials hope a large portion of that increase will be reimbursed by a contractor that went belly-up before finishing work on the new jail being built west of Santa Maria.

“We’re confident we will be seeing, if not all, a large chunk of money coming back to use following litigation,” County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni said.

Last July, the county filed litigation against Rosser International Inc., which was to provide architectural, engineering and related professional design services, but ceased operations last June before its work was completed.

But Grey said other issues led to delays and cost increases, including the earthwork contractor refusing to execute a subcontract after it had been awarded, winter storms that delayed work, coordination problems with the contractor, material delivery delays and design changes required by errors and omissions or to meet regulatory requirements.

“Obviously, it’s less than ideal when a project goes over budget,” said 2nd District Supervisor and Board Chairman Gregg Hart, adding that given all the delays and other problems, it’s “remarkable the cost hasn’t gone up even more.”

The project also has increased in size and weathered a grand jury investigation since the county began planning construction of the Northern Branch Jail more than 10 years ago, even before the county’s Santa Maria Jail was closed by budget cuts.

Initial estimates put the construction cost at about $80 million for a 305-bed facility scheduled for completion in September 2018 and designed to alleviate overcrowding at the Main Jail in Santa Barbara.

In 2008, the state approved a conditional award of up to nearly $56.3 million through the first phase of the AB 900 Local Jail Construction Funding Program that would reimburse the county for 75% of eligible expenses, putting the county’s estimated portion at just under $23.9 million.

But in 2011 when the second phase of the AB 900 funding program kicked in, the county could get reimbursed up to 90% of the construction cost for a 374-bed facility, so it relinquished the previous grant and applied for a conditional award of $80 million, which was approved.

In 2013, supervisors approved contributing money each year to build up a fund to pay the annual operating costs of the new jail, estimated at $18 million, which raised questions in grand jurors’ minds about the funding mechanism and led to an investigation.

In its report, the 2013-14 grand jury estimated property tax revenue would have to rise 3.5% annually to meet the operating costs and gave the county’s plan a 50% to 70% chance of success

The project weathered that criticism, but in 2016 when the lowest of two bids for construction of the jail came in at 17% above the engineer’s estimate, the overall budget jumped from $96.1 million to $110.8 million.

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County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.

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