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Local News

Board of Supervisors Begins Lengthy Budget Hearings

Also on Monday, the county reaches a labor agreement with its firefighters union aimed at saving more than $2 million

In the first of three all-day hearings dedicated to combing through this year’s budget and its expected $40 million shortfall, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Monday discussed the first budget items of public safety and the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, among others.

After County Executive Officer Mike Brown’s presentation of his office’s recommended budget, the board waded into the budgets for court special services, the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office before moving on to the probation, fire and sheriff’s departments.

As it has throughout the county’s lengthy budget review process, the discussion about potential cuts to public safety departments gave rise to some emotional commentary from those concerned about a resulting increase in crime and gang activity.

Acting District Attorney Ann Bramson said the $500,000 budget shortfall her department faces equals four full-time support positions, but that the department’s attorneys and staff are dedicated to becoming more efficient at a personal level. She called for more cooperation between public safety departments to reduce the number of court appearances required of attorneys, saying that prisoner transfers, lost attorney hours and a host of other inconveniences amount to a significant loss from the department’s budget.

Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno said he would not support a proposal to close the Santa Maria branch of the Santa Barbara County Jail that’s been on the table for the past two months. A number of police advocates, members of the public and former Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said that closing the facility, which handles about 4,000 booked inmates each year, would be a huge mistake.

“This is not merely a budget issue, it’s a public safety issue,” said Lt. Matt Olsen, commander of the California Highway Patrol’s Santa Maria Station, adding that because the CHP doesn’t have detention facilities of its own, it has to rely on county jails across the state. He said facing a 140-mile round trip to the county’s South Coast jail would take patrol officers out of service long enough to equal a virtual staff reduction.

Olsen’s concerns were shared by representatives from the Santa Maria and Guadalupe police departments, both of which use the nearby North County jail on a regular basis. Santa Maria Councilman Mike Cordero — a retired Santa Maria police lieutenant — said that the county was asking North County locales to bear more of the burden of proposed cuts than their South Coast counterparts. Taking away the jail, he said, would be disastrous to law enforcement efforts there.

County Fire also presented its fiscal scenario, with Chief Michael Dyer saying that although the department has seen a 95 percent increase in emergency responses in the past two decades, there are now two fewer full-time positions. Much of the department’s funding comes from property tax revenue, but administrators have been looking for ways to trim its budget.

The firefighters union announced Monday a labor agreement with the county aimed at saving the county more than $2 million over the next three years. The 200-member International Association of Firefighters Local 2046 forged a concession agreement deferring wage increases until 2013.

“Our membership has made considerable contract concessions two years in a row, which highlights their understanding of the economic issues faced by the county,” IAFF Local 2046 President Rob Heckman said in a news release. “The main goal of these concessions was to maintain staffing levels vital to the safety of the communities we serve.”

Concessions also have been made this year by the county’s Deputy Sheriff’s Association — with estimated savings of more than $4 million during the next four years — as well as nearly $10 million worth of savings from concessions made by the Service Employees International Union, the Engineers and Teachers Association, and the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, in addition to a handful of other employees not represented by unions.

Monday’s hearing ended on a somewhat dismal note as the board examined Brown’s recommended cuts for the Public Health Department and ADMHS, which faced the most severe cuts. Supervisor Doreen Farr asked Brown whether ADMHS employees had been ordered to turn away indigent patients because of their high cost and low probability of payment, but Brown said he was unsure of how exactly the department planned to address the issue.

The Board of Supervisors will continue its budget talks Wednesday with personnel- and finance-related departments.

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

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