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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 9:34 am | Fair 56º


Harris Sherline: Can We Afford a New Santa Barbara County Jail?

The issue is not whether a facility is needed, but how to pay for it

Do we really need another jail in north Santa Barbara County? Considering all the demands and mandates for housing prisoners being imposed by the state of California, it’s obvious that we do.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

But that’s nothing new. The need has been clearly demonstrated for at least 25 years that I know of. And as we move closer to the Nov. 2 election, Sheriff Bill Brown is hitting the campaign trail to promote his proposal for a half-cent sales tax to help pay for construction and operating expenses of the long-sought North County jail, which the Board of Supervisors approved for the ballot.

In the 25 years I have lived in the Santa Ynez Valley, it seems that hardly a year has passed without an appeal by the sheriff to both the public and the supervisors to find the money for a North County jail.

Today, Brown must deal with California mandates that require local governments to accept more prisoners from the state. As Santa Barbara County’s population has increased — to more than 400,000 today from 329,133 in 1984 — the need for increased jail capacity has grown apace.

The problem is that the public is confronted with the growing need for expanded jail capacity every year (including a North County facility) vs. the limitations of the county’s budget, and the jail always loses out. This has been going on for the past 25 years, and the Board of Supervisors has never been willing to allocate the funding for the jail.

The issue is not whether a jail is needed, but how to pay for it. In spite of repeated entreaties by community watchdogs such as Andy Caldwell and others, the Board of Supervisors has consistently refused to provide the necessary funding out of the county budget.

Budget allocations are always a matter of whose ox gets gored. Managers and department heads never seem to get the funding they think they need. There is never enough money to go around, and someone is invariably disappointed.

Randy Alcorn recently noted: “Rarely does government voluntarily cut spending or give up a level of revenue once that revenue has been extracted from taxpayers. ... More revenue is not the answer, nor is less revenue the problem. The problem is spending.”

Once again, Santa Barbara County taxpayers are being asked to tax themselves for an expenditure that can and should be funded out of the county’s available revenues. We are told that the cost of the jail will be $80 million, about $56 million of which may be funded by a state grant, but the half-cent sales tax on the November ballot would add up to $420 million over its 14-year term.

Brown has outlined a variety of factors, including state mandates for housing prisoners, in support of his initiative. But the fact remains that budgets always involve trade-offs and some needs must invariably give way for others that are considered a higher priority.

In short, despite repeated entreaties by civic leaders to get the supervisors to fund a North County jail and its operating expenses out of available revenue, they have steadfastly refused to do so.

Notwithstanding the downturn in the economy and other complexities of the budget allocations, it’s difficult to understand why the county can’t find the money that’s needed for the North County jail out of the projected 2010-11 fiscal year revenue of some $864 million.

There is no higher priority than public health and safety, and the Sheriff’s Department is obviously a major component of that requirement. It’s time the Board of Supervisors changed its funding priorities to reflect that reality instead of asking taxpayers to add to the tax burden they are already carrying.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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