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Sheriff Brown Makes Pitch for Sales Tax to Fund New North County Jail, Operations

The half-percent tax would replace a temporary 1 percent tax set to end in June 2011

Jail overcrowding has long been a problem in Santa Barbara County, and particularly in the North County, where population and crime have been on the rise for decades. With gang-related crime reaching unprecedented levels, many have called for a new North County jail.

Sheriff Bill Brown addressed the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday and said that aside from being severely overcrowded — there are more than 1,000 inmates in a building designed to accommodate 818 — the main jail is in need of serious infrastructure upgrades. He asserted that a new $80 million, 304-bed North County facility would remove some of the physical pressure placed on the aging structure by overpopulation and the hard use inherent in housing corrections residents.

The problem, of course, has been how to fund it. Having narrowly wriggled through the county’s grueling budget process with enough money to maintain the North County holding facility this year, Brown has presented a plan to place a half-percent sales tax — dubbed the jail construction, operation and public safety enhancement tax — on the November ballot.

Expected to bring in about $30 million annually, the tax is designed to replace a temporary 1 percent sales tax scheduled to sunset on June 30, 2011.

“In essence, what people around the community would experience is a half-percent decrease in sales tax,” said Brown, explaining that when the 1 percent temporary tax expires at the end of June 2011, the half-percent tax proposed to replace it on July 1, 2011, would reduce the county’s sales and use tax from its current 8.75 percent to 8.25 percent.

The sheriff said, however, that constructing a new jail facility in the North County would not be enough on its own. With recidivism rates hovering around 70 percent, Brown called for more money to be invested into treating the social problems that eventually blossom into criminal activity and gang problems. Having acquired a tentative lock on a $56.3 million state grant, Brown said the Sheriff’s Department would have to fund only about $24 million for construction and operation of the jail, as well as treatment programs and fire service contributions.

“This size of jail will not work without investing simultaneously in prevention, enforcement and alternative-to-custody programs,” Brown told the board. “We have developed a solution that will solve this problem once and for all while making our county a safer place.”

Aside from funding construction and operation of the new North County facility, treatment programs and upgrades to the main jail, the sales tax also would be used, to a limited extent, for fire protection.

Some contention arose between Brown and the board, though, over how much money would be set aside for fire protection. Brown said taking too much money away from the tax’s intended law enforcement purpose would make it difficult to sell to voters in the fall, leading the supervisors to vote unanimously Tuesday to continue the item for further discussion at the board’s July 6 hearing.

Public Defender Greg Paraskou said that as a member of the 2007 Blue Ribbon Commission studying jail overcrowding in Santa Barbara County, he was initially skeptical that a new jail was the answer.

“I’m a public defender, and in my view, we lock up too many people for too long, and for all the wrong reasons,” he said during the public comment period. “As we went through the [commission’s evaluation] process, it became clear to me that there is a need for a new jail.”

Paraskou also said, however, that he was unhappy with the amount of money that had been diverted away from the treatment portion of the law enforcement pie in favor of facility upgrades and hard enforcement options.

“What I walked away from the Blue Ribbon Commission with was that for every dollar spent on the jail, there should be 50 cents spent on alternatives,” he said. “This proposal significantly cuts that.”

Brown agreed that more attention needs to be focused on rehabilitation programs, such as a work furlough system — the county used to have one but no longer does — that he said would keep inmates employed and their families off public assistance. Both in-custody and community-based drug treatment programs are also a major focus of the department, and Brown indicated that it is always in need of more funding.

On July 6, the Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss in greater detail expenditure ratios and the term for which the sales tax would be in effect. As presented, the plan — which Brown said needs to go on this November’s ballot so the department doesn’t lose its window of opportunity and be forced to wait until the 2012 primary election — calls for a 10-year term.

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

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