How to fund a North County jail for Santa Barbara County has stumped four sheriffs and eight boards of supervisors over the decades, but the need for a new facility can’t be put off any longer.
That was the case that Sheriff Bill Brown made Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors, which signed off on moving forward with $80 million in state funding that would be used to build a jail near Santa Maria.
The move will allow the county to build the facility a cost of about 10 cents to the dollar, presenting a deal to leaders for a 376-bed jail facility.
But how to pay for ongoing costs for staffing, estimated at a whopping $17 million annually, remains to be seen.
The supervisors voted unanimously to accept the conditional award of $80 million, and allow Brown to keep moving forward with the project, and will likely host a workshop at a later date to flesh out details about ongoing funding.
The county has had to match the state funding with an upfront commitment of $8.9 million, more than $5 million of which is coming from the county’s general fund reserves.
How to pay for the jail has been a problem that has dogged Brown since he was elected after running on a platform that included ending jail overcrowding.
To that end, the public has been asked to fund a sales tax that would fund a new jail, but that approach has failed twice, the last time in 2010 under Brown’s watch.
Then “realignment” came along, Brown said, with the state shifting responsibility for many prisoners back to counties.
The county jail system is seeing more inmates than projected, Brown said, exacerbating an already overcrowded facility.
Illustrating just how dangerously overcrowded the county lock-up is, Brown said the jail has 788 beds but an average population of 1,023 inmates.
“We are operating at 130 percent of the designed capacity of our jail,” he said.
If the plan proceeds according to Brown’s plan, the county would break ground on the new jail by July 2015.
During public comment, eight speakers came forward, some representing the District Attorney’s Office, city police and probation, each of them supporting the jail.
With the new plan, 95 new employees would have to be hired, and the $17 million in annual funding would include their salaries.
“We believe all of these cost figures are high,” Brown said, because of a pension-reform law that recently was signed by the governor.
“It’s safe to assume these numbers will be substantially reduced in actual pension costs to the county,” Brown said.
The ongoing costs were not lost on the supervisors.
“The $17 million for ongoing operations is the rub,” Supervisor Salud Carbajal said.
Brown admitted that operating costs were a “tough nut to crack,” but showed the supervisors a graph illustrating his plan to pay for those costs.
Central to that idea would be carving out that money from future general fund growth, putting it in a separate account from which they’d draw costs.
The general fund is expected to grow 2 percent next year, and some of that money has already been pledged to departments such as county fire. Whether the supervisors can find the political will to push those sought-after dollars to a jail effort year after year remains to be seen.
Supervisor Janet Wolf suggested that more public input would be needed to figure out how best to pay for those costs.
“We’re going to need a workshop that focuses on this,” she said, adding that the hits the “rest of the county family” would take as a result would need to be studied.
The supervisors will be back on Oct. 16 to look at the project’s delivery and construction agreements.