The Theo Lacy jail in the city of Orange. (Photo credit: Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has been able to hold county supervisors at bay regarding layoffs or further budget cuts by promising that millions will come from the federal government as payment for housing immigration detainees at Theo Lacy jail in Orange.

Earlier this month, Hutchens announced that a tentative deal had been struck with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Hutchens expects the deal to provide up to $12.5 million each year to house up to 1,400 inmates.

However, specific details of the arrangement — price for each bed and housing details — have yet to be released. And the devil might be in those details.

One of the biggest questions facing the contract had been the daily bed rate that the federal government would pay. In Los Angeles, the Sheriff’s Department gets as much as $117 for every undocumented criminal it houses for ICE. The city of Santa Ana gets about $82 per head.

The uncertainty surrounding cost recovery estimates and reliability of payment from the feds makes members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors nervous. And they are telling Hutchens they want to see backup plans in case the contract doesn’t come through.

There’s another reason the supervisors should be worried.

The city of Orange — which surrounds the Theo Lacy facility — has a settlement agreement that says the jail won’t be expanded.

An interesting twist to the deal revolves around whether the current facilities will have to be expanded to house the new inmates. There will be a lot of eyes on the Sheriff’s Departments plan looking to see whether housing changes trigger the city of Orange agreement or state environmental regulations, known as the California Environmental Quality Act.

Both could present potential legal challenges, complicating the arrival of any federal payments.

“That’s what we’re waiting to see,” said Orange City Manager John Sibley. “We don’t know their ultimate plan.”

Yet Sibley does know one thing. His City Council members are ready to head to court if they don’t like what they hear.

“They were opposed to any expanded use,” he said of council members. “If they are going to expand the facility, the council would consider taking legal action.”


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