Emily Harris and Bernadette Rabuy: To pass tax, San Mateo must cancel jail

By Emily Harris and Bernadette Rabuy

Special to the Mercury News

Posted:   08/08/2012 02:35:00 PM PDT
Updated:   08/08/2012 04:15:22 PM PDT
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Customers exit a Kmart store in San Mateo, California. The cost of retail items will increase if…

The list of recent service cuts and layoffs in San Mateo County is long. We need a new hospital. Foreclosures, unemployment, emergency room use and applications for food and housing assistance have all risen dramatically. One thing we do not need, and should not pay for, is a new jail.

At a time when the recession is hitting every county and service agency hard, the supervisors have approved putting a regressive half-cent sales tax on the November ballot despite strong concerns from the community that this revenue will inevitably go directly into funding a new jail.

The supervisors are obscuring the main purpose of the sales tax from voters. They have already approved plans to build a jail that they do not have money for, and construction costs account for more than half of the county’s $80 million budget increase this year. The new jail will cost $150-200 million to build and $30-40 million a year to operate. The county’s former controller, strongly opposed the jail, calls it “a budget buster.”

The Jail Tax gives the supervisors “complete discretion regarding the use of the proceeds of the tax.” We have seen where their discretion has led us: they have slashed $70 million from services, frozen employee salaries at 2008 levels and left the county with a potential deficit of $41 million by 2016. They then approved an unnecessary new jail.

Clearly they have their priorities wrong. For more than a year, residents have voiced opposition to the jail proposal, especially as our county and state face devastating losses to schools, health care and other basic services. San Mateo needs to fund basic services. To do that, we need to cancel the jail.

Residents and experts have proven over and over that there are safe, cost-effective and humane ways to reduce the jail population. A recent study by the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice concluded that any consideration of a jail in San Mateo should be delayed while the county pursues alternatives such as reducing the 76 percent of the jail population that is yet to go to trial, many of whom simply cannot afford bail.

A report from the county’s Civil Grand Jury released this week stated that Sheriff Munks believes releasing any pre-trial detainees would be a threat to public safety. This myth has been debunked across the state. One does wonder whether the sheriff prefers to keep his current jails overcrowded so that he can justify a new one.

The ACLU has found that “money spent for jail construction and maintenance will inevitably require cuts in county spending on housing, education, healthcare, transit infrastructure, and other more urgently-needed services.” It has stated that the Women’s Correctional Center could be safely closed by utilizing alternative programs.

A new jail would not only hold hostage thousands of residents who can’t afford bail, but also our ability to create real and sustainable revenue streams for the services residents need. The supervisors should abandon the jail expansion and then evaluate what resources might be needed to create truly safe, healthy, prosperous and livable communities. If we want this measure to be a “save the hospital, parks and children’s programs tax,” we must demand the cancelation of the jail. Otherwise this tax increase will just become a massive Jail Tax.

Emily Harris is statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). Bernadette Rabuy of South San Francisco is a CURB member. They wrote this for this newspaper.