Thursday, August 16 , 2018, 3:46 pm | Fair 77º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Rising Costs for Sheriff’s Department Services Putting Goleta in Fiscal Bind

Facing a hefty budget deficit next year, the City Council is forced to consider possible cuts to law enforcement

The budget decisions facing South Coast leaders these days aren’t for the faint of heart. How much to fund public safety is one of the most controversial decisions a municipality can make, and one that the Goleta City Council will tackle on Thursday.

The city of 30,000 has contracted with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement since it became incorporated in 2002, but rising costs to maintain current service levels will undoubtedly be an issue — and could lead to cuts.

The city is looking at an increase of $1.4 million in law enforcement costs over the next two years to maintain the same number of positions. Over the next year, the council faces paying just less than $7 million for sheriff services, a $650,426 increase over the previous year.

Goleta Mayor Margaret Connell said the city knew the costs would increase about 11 percent before budget talks began.

“Without begrudging the sheriff too much, they are giving a pretty big increase,” she said, adding that the city hasn’t given its staff pay increases in three years.

Overall, Goleta faces a deficit next year of nearly $700,000 just by keeping service levels the same.

The city is being asked to approve 33 full-time law enforcement positions for the upcoming year. Criminal investigators, a community resource deputy, a school resource deputy and traffic enforcement officers are all included in the services the city receives. As of July 1, Goleta will have the only school resource deputy, at Dos Pueblos High School.

Expanding neighborhood watch programs, addressing gang activities and increasing law presence throughout the community are all goals of the city, Vyto Adomaitis, director of the Redevelopment, Neighborhood Services and Public Safety Department, said in a budget meeting last Thursday. He said enhancing the presence of bike patrols in Old Town and out on the bluffs are also priorities.

This budget cycle isn’t the first time Goleta has had to ponder law enforcement cuts. Two years ago it had to eliminate a gang deputy position, and last year it lost a detective.

And Goleta isn’t the only city being forced to evaluate its Sheriff’s Department contract either. Last week, the City of Carpinteria, facing its own $1.1 million deficit, voted to eliminate three positions from its budget.

One detective and one patrol position, as well as a community resource deputy were cut, and the loss of positions will amount to about $420,000 in savings. Carpinteria leaders were told they could expect an 11 percent increase in costs this year, up about $340,000. The city now has 14 positions in its contract with the Sheriff’s Department. 

Carpinteria’s council approved those cuts 4-1, with Councilman Joe Armendariz dissenting.

“I find it extremely disturbing,” he said. “We are gambling with the public safety of this community.”

But his was the lone voice opposing the cuts.

“When there is an increase of almost 11 percent when everyone else is cutting their pay and cutting back, it’s a hard thing to do,” Councilman Brad Stein said.

“I think we have an adequate level of service with what we’re proposing,” Mayor Al Clark said, adding that the city would be more likely to reach its budget goals because of the decision.

Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Darren Fotheringham oversees patrol operations in Goleta, Isla Vista and Carpinteria. He said that in Carpinteria, officials had conversations with the city manager and then worked with the City Council to identify their priorities.

“We were hopeful (the cuts) would not be as severe as they were, but we will work with the city to try to minimize impacts,” he said. “We acknowledge that labor costs across the board are continuing to rise.”

Health-care and pension costs have risen dramatically.

“Things like the unemployment insurance increases have also hiked up costs,” Fotheringham said.

Law enforcement is also technology heavy, and Fotheringham said that only half the cost of a patrol car is for the actual vehicle.

He acknowledges that the Sheriff’s Department is under its own squeeze. It has eliminated about a third of its management positions through attrition. Additionally, the department could lose up to 30 positions in the county’s upcoming budget.

Fotheringham said Goleta is at its lowest level of law enforcement since it began its contract with the Sheriff’s Department. The city boasts some of the lowest crime rates in the county, according to statistics from the California Attorney General’s Office.

The city saw only 51 violent crimes in 2009, compared with 428 in Santa Barbara that year and 735 in Santa Maria. Property crimes in the area are also relatively low, with 203 occurring in 2009, compared with 1,433 in neighboring Santa Barbara, and Connell said she has no complaints about the service Goleta gets.

The city is expecting a bump in revenues in 2012-13, which will add up to about $3 million as the city transitions out of its revenue neutrality agreement with Santa Barbara County.

“The thing that’s sort of upsetting is that we’re going to get this bump in revenues in 2012, and a good chunk of that is going to go to the Sheriff’s Department unless we make some cuts,” Connell said.

In the meantime, the city doesn’t have access to those revenues this year.

“We may have to say, ‘This is how much we have to spend. Tell us what we can do with that and where any cuts will hurt least,’” she said.

The city of Goleta is nearly 10 years old, and discussion may arise in the future about when the city should form its own police force.

“That would be a major venture, and we’re not there yet,” Connell said, but added that discussions about other options may arise.

Many of the costs involved with law enforcement are determined at the county level, and retirement costs play a large part in the equation.

County CEO Chandra Wallar said that proposals from the county are currently in front of bargaining units. For current employees, the county is proposing changes such as eliminating the ability to convert vacation hours into pay and eliminating performance-based, lump-sum payments. She said those proposals are in front of all the county’s unions, including public safety.

More aggressive offsets to cost are being contemplated for future employees. Lowering the formulas used to calculate the pension benefit, including 2 percent of salary at 50 years old for future safety employees, is among the changes. Using a three-year final average salary to calculate the pension benefit instead of a final average salary based on the single highest salary year is also on the table.

Whether union groups will accept those offers remains to be seen, and in the meantime, cities will continue to pay. To an extent. 

“We will do everything we can to maintain public safety, within the limits of our budget,” Connell said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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