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Local News

Jail Tax Measure Draws Support, But Opponents Question County Planning

Proponents see Measure S as a solution to problems of overcrowding and high recidivism

Overcrowding and high recidivism rates have plagued the Santa Barbara County Jail for decades, and proponents of Measure S taut it as the solution.

The half-cent sales tax increase would fund front-line law enforcement and fire protection services, the construction and operation of a new jail facility, repairing existing facilities, and recidivism reduction efforts and alternatives to incarceration to address the overcrowding problem.

Opponents have criticized the county Board of Supervisors for shortsightedness, as savings were not put aside for a new jail despite the need being apparent for 20 years.

The Tax

For the next 14 years, the half-cent increase would yield about $30 million a year. Proponents say its July 1, 2011, start date would coincide with the expected sunset of a statewide 1 percent sales tax, making the county’s rates decrease by a half-cent overall, from 8.75 to 8.25 percent. The tax needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

In 14 years, either the economy would have rebounded to the point the community no longer needs it, or the Sheriff’s Department would try to pass it again to continue funding, Sheriff Bill Brown said.

The ballot arguments in support of Measure S are signed by all five county supervisors, and the arguments against are signed by four county businessmen: Gregory Gandrud, Dave Stockdale, Bob Nelson and Berto van Veen. Stockdale, who lost his bid to challenge Rep. Lois Capps, wrote the majority of the argument.

A wide range of municipalities, nonprofit organizations, unions and politicians have endorsed the proposed initiative, saying the time is right to deal with the overcrowding problem.

Brown has outlined the effects of overcrowding from early releases to the changing demographics of the jail population, and he said an increased capacity could help put more inmates through treatment programs. The jail construction also could stimulate the local economy with new jobs, the argument states.

Multiple organizations have opposed Measure S, including the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, the Carpinteria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association and the Republican Central Committee, which submitted a ballot argument against Measure S.

A citizen group, Voters for Fiscal Responsibility First, founded in part by Nelson, also has come out against the measure.

The argument against the measure focuses on the Board of Supervisors’ failure to use existing revenues to pay for the needed jail. Even though the need has been apparent for decades, the argument states, the money is spent elsewhere year after year.

“Now they say they can’t afford $24 million in matching funds for the jail,” the argument states. “So they want $420 million more of your hard earned money?”

Gandrud, an accountant who ran for county treasurer in June, said poor planning was at fault.

“The county budget is well over $800 million a year, so we feel that people already pay enough taxes,” he said. “And most people expect that the primary purpose of their taxes go to roads and public safety. We absolutely need a new jail … but it needs to be paid for with existing revenues, and so tough choices need to be made by the Board of Supervisors.”

Both San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties have lower sales tax rates of 8.25 percent, and businesses could re-evaluate locating here, he said.

The Jail and Repairs

Half of the money — or $15 million per year — would go to constructing and operating the 304-bed jail facility in Santa Maria.

Under Assembly Bill 900, the county was awarded $56.3 million in state funds from the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007, on the condition that the county come up the $24 million matching funds for the $80 million construction costs and be able to operate the facility within 90 days of completion.

After construction is complete, the $15 million per year would be used for the $17 million annual operating costs. It would require about 100 custody deputies and 50 support staff members, Brown said.

The money also could be used for repairs to existing infrastructure, included the Main Jail, which has been added on to seven times to increase capacity.

The condition of state funds hinge on using the Tri-Counties Re-Entry Facility in Paso Robles, which would be shared among Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Benito counties for paroled prisoners. Originally, the county proposed a combined re-entry facility and jail in Santa Maria.

The People

Each year, $10 million would be dedicated to front-line law enforcement and fire protection, including funds to cities and fire protection districts, the Probation Department, countywide watershed protection and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

It could include salaries and benefits, employer pension contributions and equipment costs. Brown said the aim is to put more deputies and firefighters back onto the streets, as many positions have been eliminated because of recent budget cuts.

The Programs

Along with more traditional funding, $5 million would go to recidivism reduction efforts, including drug treatment programs, mental health services, homeless and mental health discharge planning, gang prevention, truancy programs, day reporting centers and work furlough programs.

The current Santa Maria jail wouldn’t be run as a traditional jail, but it could become a work furlough facility or something of the like, Brown said.

The treatment-centered jail design was partly achieved with the input of Sheriff’s Treatment Program civilian supervisor Chuck McClain. Cells are arranged in modules with classrooms so inmates don’t have to be moved around as much, he said. With less mobility, there can be lower staffing levels, as services can be brought to inmates.

The Sheriff’s Treatment Program has served 8,000 people since 1996 and boasts a 30 percent recidivism rate vs. the 75 percent for the total jail. Eighty percent of inmates have drug- or alcohol-related crimes, McClain said.

The program helps many end the cycle of addiction and incarceration, and “when one person gets sober, it affects many, many other people,” McClain said.

Oversight committees would be formed to give direction on expenditure plans, and a separate one for recidivism efforts. With a four-fifths vote, the Board of Supervisors could amend the spending plan, which is meant to be a “Plan B” built into the initiative, Brown said.

There would also be an annual independent audit, with the cost paid by Measure S funds.

The History

Grand jury reports have emphasized a need for a North County Jail almost every year since 1994 and urged the county to “immediately seek financing for the construction and operation of a North County jail by whatever means available.”

A new jail planning study was presented to the Board of Supervisors in 2005 that discussed alternatives to a new jail — almost all of which have been used, such as citing and releasing most people with misdemeanors — and funding options, which included grants, pay-as-you-go, setting the amounts aside over time, general obligation bonds, selling county property, pursuing oil development or implementing a jail-specific sales tax.

The 2007-08 Blue Ribbon Commission recommended a blended strategy of a new jail and prevention programs, to avoid the necessity of a larger jail in the future, since the Main Jail and Medium Security Facility on Calle Real are operating at 120 percent capacity.

With preventive programs, the commission supported tackling the four major areas: 18 percent of the jail population is homeless, 29 percent is on mental health medications, 85 percent are substance abusers and 38 percent have self-identified themselves as having gang involvement.

“It is understood that no reasonable amount of additional jail capacity alone will solve the problem of jail overcrowding,” the report states.

The half-cent provides more than necessary for the $5 million recommended for alternative programs and the construction and operations — so the rest was decided to go toward front-line law enforcement, said Rick Roney, chairman of the commission and the county re-entry steering committee. The commission took no formal vote on Measure S but mostly agreed with it, he said.

Voters turned down a half-cent countywide sales tax in 2000, which would have funded a 120-bed North County juvenile hall and 400-bed jail, a South County juvenile hall, a forensic facility and countywide prevention, intervention and treatment programs. In 2005, the rate would have decreased a quarter-percent.

Measure S will be on the Nov. 2 ballot for Santa Barbara County voters.

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

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