Santa Barbara County is one step closer to a much-needed Emergency Operations Center, thanks to a unanimous vote of support Tuesday from the Board of Supervisors.
However, how half of the funding for the project will be appropriated is still in question.
The $4.2 million needed to complete the project is being supplemented from the philanthropic efforts of the Orfalea Fund and its Aware and Prepare Initiative, along with several other nonprofits that have pledged more than $2 million to help the project materialize. The board voted Tuesday to accept those donations.
But the rest of the money would come from funds set aside in years past for an EOC, by previous boards. Although it was set aside for a specific purpose, the money sits in the county’s general fund, which caused anxiety for two members of the board.
The board eventually voted to have the staff explore options for the remaining money, which could include getting a loan and then paying the general monies back eventually via designated funds from the state.
The project has been discussed for more than a decade and was even the subject of a grand jury report issued last April, which called for the construction.
Bids were solicited in August, and local company Melchiori Construction came back the lowest bidder at $3,586,013 for the project.
The nearly 10,000-square-foot facility would serve as a central location for personnel to mobilize during disasters. The plans show a host of amenities, including conference rooms, support space, break rooms and showers.
In order to proceed, four of the five supervisors needed to approve the action Tuesday, which proved difficult at first.
Before the vote, Supervisor Dorreen Farr expressed apprehensions about going forward on the project in such uncertain economic times.
“All we have to do is look at the proposed legislative platform to see how serious these issues are,” she said, citing the continued cuts to child welfare and needy seniors that are likely in the future. “I just can’t commit this amount of undesignated, general fund money that could be used … for anything.”
Supervisor Salud Carbajal also took issue with using the money in the general fund, and said he had trouble approving something that wasn’t financed.
“It’s really difficult to tell those vulnerable populations, as well as our employees, we’re broke, really, really broke” while spending the money on a project, he said.
But the remaining board members said the money had been aside specifically for this type of project.
Supervisor Joe Centeno said he had been to the current Emergency Operations Center during the last fires to hit Santa Barbara and was less than disappointed with what he saw.
“I can tell you it was an abomination,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine how people were working in that facility.”
He said borrowing the money could potentially cost the county more than $350,000 — and over the 20-year life of the project, could cost a hefty sum. He also encouraged the supervisors to seize the opportunity to use the donated monies, which would have gone away if the board had not chosen to act.
“If we don’t do this thing and do it now, those dollars are going to go away,” he said. “I’m not willing to take these dollars that were set aside to build this project and use them for ongoing costs.”
Supervisor Janet Wolf agreed.
“It’s actually shameful, I think,” she said, adding that because the current location isn’t a dedicated emergency operations center, time is needed to set it up when a disaster suddenly develops. “No matter what the disaster is, time is of the essence.”
Wolf said she felt “the stars had lined up” on the project, with the philanthropic donation and the construction bid being less than staff expected. “How can we, as a community, say that public healthy and safety is important to us and yet not move ahead?”
The staff will explore financing options for the project and return to the board within the next few weeks.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at email@example.com.