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Cost overruns, delays on new jail project climb

At the first meeting of the new year, the Board of Supervisors learned that new estimates for building the jail are more than $10 million higher than the original. The project expected to be done more than a year later than originally anticipated, largely due to delays at the state level, according to the contractor.

Cost overruns and delays at the new jail county continue, with exasperation on all sides at inaccurate estimates, delays at the state level, a continuing lack of financial information, and fears that the county will be unable to meet its obligations.

The new estimated date to complete construction, which has not yet begun, is May 2025, rather than March 2024, which was the originally anticipated milestone. The new cost estimate is more than ten million dollars higher than the original, with an estimated funding shortfall of $1.4 million.

Supervisor Dan Gjerde expressed frustration over the estimates provided by contractor Nacht and Lewis, the architecture firm that’s been working on the design phase of the project.

“We may be about one year behind schedule at this point, but now the costs are estimated by Nacht and Lewis as being 42% higher than originally estimated,” he calculated. “I don’t know if Nacht and Lewis has any insurance policy or anything. To what extent do they validate, when they’re hired by customers, that they are providing agencies with a good estimate when agencies submit a grant application, because for example, had we known when we applied that the costs were going to be substantially higher, we could have asked for a grant form the state for more than $25 million. We asked for $25 million because Nacht and Lewis said the project would cost $26 million, and it required a minimal county match. At this point, the county match has ballooned from one million to I think it’s about $12 million at this point or more. So I really wonder about the ethical practices of Nacht and Lewis, if they are that far off the mark…and just finally, ultimately, I feel like the county needs to make a full court press to go back to the state and say, hey, this is your program. You’re realigning people from state prisons into county jails. It’s in the best interests of the public that we do that, but it’s not bearable for a small rural poor county like Mendocino to pay so much of the share of this project that was originally a state project.”

With the books not yet closed for the last fiscal year, Supervisor Glenn McGourty, who is the new chair this year, tried to get an idea of how the county will pay for its share of the project. That information is still not available, according to CEO Darcie Antle.

“Any thoughts about how we’re going to afford this?” he asked. Antle told him she hopes the fiscal year 22/23 books will be closed soon, at which point the executive office will have an estimate of the carry-forward. There will be a budget workshop for the upcoming fiscal year at the next regular Board of Supervisors meeting on January 24. “This is a real horror show of signing up for something that you don’t really know the price for, and it keeps escalating, making it very, very difficult for us to meet all of the other things that we want to do for the county,” McGourty noted.

Eric Fadness, of Nacht and Lewis, said the delays and overruns are due to factors that are beyond his control. He also told the board that the limit on the amount the county could have applied for to build the jail was $25 million. “Any additional costs to the project would have to come out of county cash match,” he said. “We do not control the construction market. We do our best to estimate the ongoing escalation in costs, but we don’t have a crystal ball to predict the escalation that’s occurring now, with inflation, supply chain delays…I’d also like to point out that we don’t control the state’s process. And the delays to the project have largely been due to state delays in approving the ground lease for the project. That took well over a year of processing for that to occur. And we were held up in our time frames to complete the construction documents while those processes were occurring. And then recently, with the state fire marshal's office. Many other counties are experiencing delays with state fire marshall review and approval. You’re not alone. But we can’t control that process.That is a process that only the state fire marshall has control of…Unfortunately, where we’re at today, the costs have increased significantly, mainly because of the delays, and because of the current market.”

Sheriff Matt Kendall was blunt about his assessment of the state’s responsibility for the jail, emphasizing that many inmates who used to be housed in state prisons are now in county facilities.

“The state of California is beginning to, for lack of better terms, beginning to step away from many of the responsibilities that they had in the past,” he opined. “I think they are working on some unrealistic numbers. We are seeing a reduction in the state prison population that is probably, based on what I can see, very reliant on some of the covid precautions that were taken, and those numbers are going to jump back up. And when that occurs, I think that we've all got to be ready…The state has stepped away from some of their standard responsibilities. And if they’re going to step away from them, then they need to make whole the people who are going to be doing some of these things.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.