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Cash-Strapped County May Close Juvenile Hall, Send Kids to Santa Maria

Despite rise in local gang violence, supervisors may OK plan to send youth offenders to Santa Maria center — saving $1 million.

At a time when local gang violence is on the rise, Santa Barbara County may downgrade its Juvenile Hall facility on Hollister Avenue into a booking center, and shuttle all juvenile offenders to the Santa Maria facility.

The proposal provides a glimpse of the depths to the budget predicament that has gripped the county, largely because of rising costs for county retirement plans and the subprime lending crisis in the housing market.

The potential Juvenile Hall downgrade, which was first presented to the Board of Supervisors at a workshop in late February, would cut costs by nearly $1 million at a time when the supervisors must reconcile a potential $26 million gap in the county’s $190 million discretionary budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year. Final budget cuts must be made this spring.

But not all the supervisors are on board with the Juvenile Hall proposal, which would transform the 24-hour La Posada jail facility, 4500 Hollister Ave. near Modoc Road, into a 10-hour booking station.

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Janet Wolf
Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose 2nd District includes Juvenile Hall, said she believes the current direction of spreading the pain evenly across all departments is the wrong way to go.

“The cuts have to be strategic, and not necessarily across the board,” she said. “They shouldn’t cause more problems and cost more in the end. That’s what I’m afraid might happen.”

Wolf said she thinks the areas of public safety, social services and mental health should be more insulated from the budget knife than some other costs, such as employee bonuses. She added that a $2 million expense for a swimming pool in Cuyama is still in the budget.

“There’s the probation facility right there,” she said.

However, 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said the magnitude of this year’s budget debacle is so large that no department can be spared.

“Everything is going to be cut next year,” he said, adding that counties throughout California are experiencing the same choices. “This is not times as usual. It’s going to be very, very difficult in the weeks ahead.”

Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray agreed, saying she trusts the staff’s judgment.

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“I’m not going to tell a professional like (Chief Probation Officer) Patti Stewart, ‘Well, don’t cut there, cut here,’ “ she said.  “She is in the field, I’m not. … Staff priorities have been made. I’m going to go with that right now unless somebody convinces me that I’m wrong.”

For the past few months, the La Posada center — which also serves as a school — has been overflowing. It houses 20 inmates, but the Probation Department typically must shuttle 15 juvenile offenders an hour north to the Santa Maria facility to handle the spillover.

Chief Probation Officer Patti Stewart said the large number of offenders on the South Coast has come as a surprise.

She said a long-range study a couple of years ago estimated that the greater Santa Barbara area would need to house around 15 juveniles — fewer than half of what the actual number has turned out to be this year on average.

“That was looking at demographics — the youth population was shrinking, a lot of families have been moving out of the area,” she said. “But in terms of booking, it has not panned out that way.”

The surge of inmates has coincided with an uptick of gang violence locally. In addition to the two gang-related murders of teenagers in the past year, the city of Santa Barbara has witnessed an increase in the number of gang-related assaults. The Santa Barbara Police Department has stepped up its efforts to crack down.

A new bicycle task force unit has aggressively gone after gang members, making 33 felony arrests since May, police Chief Cam Sanchez said in a presentation to the City Council last month. During that time frame, a street-enforcement crew of six has made 71 felony arrests, which Sanchez said included assaults with baseball bats, stabbings with knives, and rapes. All were gang-related, he said.

But despite the unfortunate timing, Stewart said the proposal to scale down Juvenile Hall was among the least harmful ways to carry out her inauspicious charge: to find ways to make substantial cuts to her budget.

Although Stewart said the Juvenile Hall retrenchments could result in the loss of eight jobs, she said most other counties — such as Ventura and San Luis Obispo — possess just one main juvenile hall facility.

She added that the Santa Maria facility, which was significantly expanded in 2005, is in much better shape than Santa Barbara’s.

Currently, the Santa Maria center, 4263 California Blvd., houses about 100 juveniles, but has room for about 140, she said. Seven of those offenders — and two in Santa Barbara — are being tried as adults.

If the Board of Supervisors approves the cut, arrangements would be made to allow family visitors who cannot make the trip to Santa Maria to talk with the inmates via video, Stewart said.

She added that the department is proposing to maintain the current home-detention program for juvenile offenders whose crimes were less severe.

Meanwhile, the biggest factor in the county’s current budget quagmire appears to be the retirement fund for county employees, which might need to grow by $16 million next year, said Santa Barbara County spokesman William Boyer.

The economic downturn — due largely to the bursting of the California housing bubble — is causing an estimated $10 million shortfall, he said.

“You’ve got a downturn in property-tax revenue, also a downturn in sales-tax revenue,” Boyer said. “You have an escalation of retirement fees for employees, also increases in salary costs in general. So you got a variety of things that are contributing to some serious financial challenges the county is facing.”

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