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Saturday, February 23 , 2019, 1:12 pm | Fair 57º


Randy Alcorn: Santa Barbara County Jailhouse Blues

Just because law enforcement and politicians want a new jail, doesn't mean it's a wise use of taxpayer dollars in a recession

There is nothing like a deep, painfully persistent economic recession to focus folks on what and how they spend money. When cash flow slows to a trickle, every dollar becomes precious. Not since the Great Depression have so many Americans experienced such a drought of dollars — either earned or borrowed. New jobs are scarce and credit is tight.

Randy Alcorn
Randy Alcorn

While American households and businesses are quietly resigned to adjusting their spending downward, the public sector — facing growing budget shortfalls — stridently insists it can not make spending cuts without unleashing the dragons of dire consequence on the public. We are repeatedly told that public safety, health and welfare are at risk if government cuts back its spending.

The budget crunch in the public sector has revealed the nature of some public servants and the depth of their dedication to the public welfare and to each other. How many public employees, particularly union members, have volunteered to accept a pay reduction to ensure the public welfare and to prevent layoffs of their fellow public servants? If the pay and benefits in the public sector were adjusted down even to a level on par with the private sector, there would be significant savings.

But, rarely does government voluntarily cut spending or give up a level of revenue once that revenue has been extracted from taxpayers. As this Great Recession strains their budgets, governments at all levels are howling, pleading and threatening for tax increases. But, more revenue is not the answer, nor is less revenue the problem. The problem is spending. The answer is fiscal common sense — a quality that has been virtually nonexistent in government.

Since the public believes that law enforcement is a primary and essential public service provided by government, cops usually get whatever they ask for. In the city of Santa Barbara, police get six-figure compensation packages with incredible retirement benefits. Why? Well, because when they demanded them few council members said no. City police have even gotten a quarter-million dollar armored truck. For what, to deal with all the civil unrest and street anarchy Santa Barbara has? That’s just Fiesta. Do we really need a war-wagon for that?

Now comes Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, with a number of other local public officials tagging along, asking county taxpayers to fund a new $80 million jail by adding a half-cent to our sales tax after California’s 1 cent sales tax surcharge expires next July. The slippery sophistry here purports that the additional half-cent would really not be a tax increase because the total sales tax rate would drop to a less ridiculously high 8.25 percent from its current ridiculously high 8.75 percent.

Frankly, a 7.75 percent sales tax was too high, given that Californians already endure nearly every type of tax ever devised by the devious denizens of public sector profligacy. We suffer all those taxes because our governments at all levels cannot or will not control their spending. And as long as we keep saying yes to taxes, guess what, we’ll get more taxes.

The proposed new county jail would be costly to build and costly to maintain. Just because the police and the politicians want it doesn’t mean we really need it. Have we asked enough questions as to why we need to make this expenditure and to incur another eternal tax increase to fund it?

How many county inmates are incarcerated for victimless crimes like drug possession or prostitution? Why are we wasting tax money jailing people for personal choices that harm no one? Even if the feds continue to pursue the futile war on drugs, that doesn’t mean our local police have to make it a priority and fill our local jails with the catch of the day. How much time and resources are local police, especially the Sheriff’s Department, devoting to uprooting marijuana plants in the hinterlands? Is this the best use of expensive police resources? Destroy one farm today and another will be planted tomorrow. It’s endless.

And, if our jails are overcrowded with truly dangerous criminals, do we really need an $80 million facility to incarcerate them? Why not construct camps in remote locations, surrounded by trenches, enclosed with high razor-wire fences and guarded from towers? Do we really need air conditioning, gyms and TV rooms for inmates? Maybe Brown can speak with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., and learn about more economical methods of incarceration.

This Great Recession offers an opportunity to force governments into fiscal responsibility. Let’s not waste it by bailing them out with more taxes. By applying some common sense to public service needs, government can reduce its craving for ever more tax money.

— Santa Barbara political observer Randy Alcorn can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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