Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown was back before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to ask for more funding to repair aging helicopters in the county's fleet, a request that some supervisors were none too pleased to hear.
Earlier this year, the sheriff asked the board for up to $200,000 to repair Helicopter 308, which was put back into service in June.
But during the course of the repairs, more work was needed on the aircraft than was expected. In early July, the Sheriff’s Department received a 54-page final invoice for the repair of Helicopter 308 totaling $254,129.93, putting the total cost of repairs over $320,000.
In appearing before the supervisors Tuesday, Brown asked for $111,000 of that to complete payment on the repairs. The board approved the request, but not without discussion.
Supervisor Doreen Farr, who has been critical of the expense of maintaining the fleet in the past, said Tuesday she was "disappointed to see this on the agenda again."
"This is an astronomical amount," she told Doug Martin, chief financial officer for the Sheriff's Department.
Since all of the increases the supervisors have approved have been insufficient, Farr said she would like to see a maximum amount that would be spent on the repairs.
Martin responded that mechanics began to find problems they didn't know existed on the helicopter, adding that it "is what it is."
Buying a new helicopter could costs several million dollars, exponentially more than the cost of repairs for existing helicopters.
"I don't know what the future holds," he told Farr. "They've all been looked at pretty extensively … but I'll probably eat my words in a couple of months."
Supervisor Peter Adam also took issue with the request, saying he had "a real problem" with the amount being so much more than the estimate.
Brown also weighed in, saying the cost was necessary.
When the need for repairs was discovered earlier this year, "it was imperative we get this helicopter up and running immediately," he said, noting that it was in the middle of fire season, and the dedicated in-house mechanic was on personal leave, so the repairs had to be outsourced.
How many aircraft the county actually needs was a question posed again on the dais Tuesday, with Brown insisting that five helicopters are needed to have two up and running at all times. It's expensive, he admitted, but "all of us have to come grips with that."
Farr said she was concerned the department has already run through most of its budget for next year.
"It is an enormous expense, and it seems to be growing," she said.
During Tuesday's meeting, the board also responded to three grand jury reports looking at the coroner's bureau, jail facilities and taxing oil production in the county.
The grand jury found the coroner's bureau was in compliance with statutes, but that the facilities need some improvements.
Problems with ventilation were mentioned in the report, and supervisors approved a mechanical engineering analysis to check on what improvements would be needed.
The grand jury also conducted inspections of detention facilities in the county. In addition to the county jail, space continues to be a problem at the Santa Barbara County Court Facilities, with many detainees being handcuffed to railings because of lack of cell space, the report states.
The overcrowding creates an unsafe environment for custody deputies and inmates, the jury found.
A third report addressed the possibility of an oil severance tax in the county.
California does not tax oil extraction, but several cities in the state do, and the grand jury recommended placing a tax in front of county voters.
With the county facing mounting costs, including the operational funding needed to operate the new north county jail after it's built, an oil tax could provide needed revenue, the report stated.
"We as a board have not figured out where that's going to come from," Supervisor Janet Wolf said about the jail operating costs.
Last year, supervisors came up one vote short to put an oil tax on the ballot before voters in a general election.
Though county officials looked at a general tax, they did not look as a specific tax, which could move forward with fewer votes from supervisors, Wolf said.
Supervisor Adam, who now sits in seat of former Supervisor Joni Gray, who voted against putting the oil tax before voters, said he didn't feel the recommendation was reasonable, and if the vote were taken again, he and Supervisor Steve Lavagnino would vote against the ballot measure.
A vote was ultimately taken — with Adam and Lavagnino dissenting — to report to the grand jury that the item would require further analysis but could be considered in the future.