Trying to get something done at South Shore is like rolling an egg up Echo Summit with your nose.
That must have been how El Dorado Supervisor Dave Solaro and Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury felt after Monday night’s public meeting to discuss proposed sites for a juvenile detention center at South Lake Tahoe. Between those who didn’t want a juvenile hall near their neighborhood, those that had an axe to grind with the county and those who just plain questioned the juvenile justice system altogether, there seemed little support for the proposed juvenile hall among the nearly filled room.
But, as is often the case at a public meeting, a few don’t necessarily speak for the many.
After years of working for a juvenile hall, Solaro and Kingsbury are so close. The county has already committed $5 million toward the $9 million project.
Then three weeks ago, Solaro found out the county was on the verge of the near impossible. The state Board of Corrections announced that the county was at the front of the line for a $4 million grant to cover the rest. The process to get the grant was complicated and unbending, to say nothing of competitive.
But Monday night, in the din of discussions over juvenile justice in general and El Dorado’s achievements in particular, the critical issue – and one that could cost the county the grant – was never really discussed.
The need for a juvenile hall at the South Shore has been apparent for years. A small community by most standards – accounting for about a quarter of El Dorado County’s total population – South Lake Tahoe has the dubious distinction of committing more than 50 percent of the county’s juvenile crime.
It’s not really hard to see why. South Lake Tahoe is a transient town with a 24-hour tourism industry. Wages are generally low, requiring parents to work two or more jobs to pay the bills. For kids left unsupervised, the temptations are many.
As it stands now, bad kids on the South Shore have little fear of punishment. Carting kids to Placerville to be housed in an overcrowded juvenile facility is impractical and time-consuming. In addition, finding a vacant bed in the 40-bed facility is difficult. As Deputy Chief Probation Officer Greg Sly said, “If we don’t have a juvenile facility, we don’t have enforcement.”
But the more critical issue, and the one left hanging Monday night, was where to build the juvenile hall. If the issue is not solved in some fashion within the next two weeks, the grant will no longer be available to El Dorado County.
And that’s something the county and city can’t pass up.
The problem is simple. The Board of Corrections offers the grant based on a deed to the land or a written promise to commit the land for a juvenile hall. This rigid requirement would be difficult to obtain even if county and city had been publicly discussing a location for a year. Considering Solaro has just two weeks, obtaining a parcel is near impossible.
That’s one of the reasons Solaro is in an all-out sprint to get community and, most particularly, City Council support.
The parcel that has been eyed for quite some time is four acres of undeveloped land across from the city police station and jail. That property is owned by the Lake Tahoe Unified School District.
At one time, back room negotiations probably would have gained the county an option on that property with a handshake. No more. A different school superintendent and school board with a different way of doing business, as well as the sharp rise in local property values, makes that parcel much more difficult to acquire.
That is now Solaro’s second choice.
Scrambling for another site, Solaro found a parcel over which the county has some control. That parcel is essentially one and a half acres that includes a section of the courthouse parking lot.
Both the city and county have rights to that parcel, but who owns what is murky and has been for a while. But the county can’t proceed with the grant application until the city agrees to let the county build there.
And that’s the rub.
The city has a long history with the county over the courthouse site. The county has not lived up to its commitments in the past, counting on new faces to forget old agreements.
While City Council has every right to be cautious, it must weigh the value of the project vs. the problems with the site and past history with the county. It won’t be an easy decision, but it must be made soon. Perhaps an agreement can be reached to provide a letter of intent for the Board of Corrections while making every effort to find a suitable site for the juvenile hall.
The project is worth the pain, even if the alternative boils down to relocating the parking lot.
(Location, location, location. In Friday’s editorial, I will discuss both sites, as well as alternatives. If you have some input, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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