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Local News

Department Officials Deliver Reality Check on County’s Budget Woes

The Board of Supervisors hears how a $40 million shortfall would affect staffing and services

Santa Barbara County’s financial pain became acutely evident at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where officials from the public safety and health sectors, as well as the assessor’s office spelled out the extent of their dire straits.

The county faces a budget shortfall of nearly $40 million, and the fiscal carnage that seems imminent isn’t confined to any specific department. All who testified Tuesday before the board, from Sheriff Bill Brown to Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss, told of critical staff reductions connected to the impending belt-tightening.

“I would liken you to a trauma team engaged in a mass-casualty incident,” said Brown, whose department faces a potential $12 million gap. “Instead of being engaged in trauma triage, you’ll be engaged in fiscal triage.”

He warned that a $12 million cut to the Sheriff’s Department would lead to 102 layoffs — or about 15 percent of its staff, including many sworn deputies. That would have “devastating impacts on public safety. Such cuts would eviscerate our agency,” he said, noting that it takes about a year of time and $100,000 to train a sworn deputy.

Of the options offered by Brown, the first included a $3 million cut and the end of the department’s Community Services Bureau, closure of the North County Jail in Santa Maria and dissolution of the Gang Enforcement unit.

During the public comment period, a graduate of the Los Prietos Boys Camp pleaded with the board not to cut the program.

“If it wasn’t for the boys camp, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be in prison,” Haciel Cervantes said. “Right now, I’m enrolled in college.”

Looking at a potential $6.8 million budget gap, fire protection services would fare no better.

County Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the cuts would mean a 70 percent reduction in crew hours, affecting everything from medical response to preventive brush clearing and debris removal. Wildfire response, he said, would fall behind without preventive maintenance.

“Without a coordinated attack, those fires don’t go out, and those crews will be on those fires much longer,” he said.

A visibly upset Auchincloss said staff reductions at the District Attorney’s Office have already led to a case load of more than 470 cases per attorney — the highest rate among California counties that report such statistics — at a time when gang crimes have increased markedly.

“These gang and murder cases are a black hole for our office. They soak up our time and resources,” he said, adding that expert witness and investigation fees in such cases double and often triple the cost of running a successful prosecution.

In a hearing that lasted more than six hours, the supervisors couldn’t hear testimony from all of the departments, so no action was taken by the board.

The hearing was continued until next Tuesday, when nearly a dozen agencies are expected to present their cases.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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