Santa Barbara County is suing, for the second time, the architectural firm hired six years ago to ride herd on the North County Jail project. A similar legal action was filed by the county late last year, but that one was dismissed.

Maybe the second time will be the charm for county officials. Taxpayers can only hope so, because county officials say the company, Atlanta-based Rosser International Inc., should be on the hook for about $3 million in cost over-runs and fees due to construction delays the county believes are Rosser’s fault.

It may be a tough process for the county, because Rosser has gone out of business, although it’s possible the firm’s demise could strengthen the county’s argument for negligence and incompetence on the company’s part.

The 376-bed, 134,000-square-foot Northern Branch Jail was supposed to be up and running a few months ago. Instead, delays the county is blaming on Rosser have pushed the opening back to the end of this year or later.

Santa Barbara County has filed a civil lawsuit against the Atlanta-based architecture firm hired to work on the Northern Branch Jail project after the company unexpectedly shuttered and abandoned its work. Filed mid-July in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, the lawsuit claims Rosser International Inc. was professionally negligent and broke contract when construction workers walked off the job in June.

When open, the jail will provide additional inmate housing, which is badly needed because the county's Main Jail in Goleta has been chronically overcrowded to the point of the state ordering early release of inmates.

Rosser was hired in 2013, and contracted for professional services with a fee of $5.7 million. County officials believe the services actually provided by the company have been anything but professional, so much so that the county had to hire another firm to finish the job after being informed that Rosser was closing its doors.

While this may seem like pointing fingers at Rosser, the simple truth comes in the form of a question: Was Rosser properly vetted before being awarded a $5.7-million contract? Another question: Why hire an Atlanta company for a California job?

That last question is important because one of the reasons Rosser apparently fell so far off the pace was in its dealings with California state government agencies that issue permits.

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We’re just asking: Wouldn’t California architectural firms know considerably more about this state’s permitting requirements and all their local applications? That seems intuitive, but may not be the case.

For example, the bidding process in the project was held up nine months due to the firm's delay in obtaining approval from the state fire marshal. Plans submitted by the company to the state did not include the correct smoke dampers. Wouldn’t knowledge of California be a requisite for timely permit submissions?

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.

Rosser apparently did a sloppy job of pointing its subcontractors in the right direction on electrical issues, incomplete or missing design details, and other important matters, all of which added up to the delay in the jail’s opening.

County officials reckon Rosser completed about four-fifths of the company’s contracted-for responsibilities, resulting in a project left dangling when Rosser went out of business.

We understand that county officials were seeking the best-performing company to get the job done, and Rosser billed itself as an international firm, but one simply has to ask if the county would have been better served by a local, or at least a California design firm.

The California Board of State and Community Corrections provided $80 million in funding for the $111-million jail project, but much of the rest of the costs ultimately fall to this county’s taxpayers.

Local governments getting burned by contractors is not a new thing. It has happened before and it will likely happen again. Keeping tax dollars in local communities should be a key consideration in such matters.

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