A day before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is set to make final decisions on the upcoming year's budget, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury issued a report questioning the plans to fund operating costs for the new North County Jail.
Based on interviews with the county CEO’s office, Sheriff’s Office, and senior officials who are responsible for county finances, the jury found that the plan to fund operations has "a 50 to 70 percent chance of success."
The county has had plans in the works for years to build a new $136-million Northern Branch Jail just outside Santa Maria, which the state is contributing almost 90 percent of the cost to build.
Whether the county can afford to fund ongoing operating costs without gouging other services remains to be seen, however, and the jury highlighted that concern in its report issued Tuesday.
"The true cost only begins here, because county tax payers will be wholly responsible for annual operating cost," the report states, adding that the new jail will cost more than $20 million the first full year of operation from 2017-2018 and the cost will increase each year after that.
Three years ago, the county planned for the operating costs based on the belief that annual discretionary revenues — the majority of which come from property taxes — would grow, shouldering the costs "in a way that would be painless to the public," the report states.
Supervisors had planned to establish a reserve fund by diverting property tax to the fund, and have planned on an assumed increase of 3.5 percent a year in property taxes.
"This requires an expanding economy, which is beyond the control of the Board of Supervisors," the report states. It also assumes a level of discipline to keep sending the increases to the reserve fund in spite of pressure to send the money elsewhere.
What the increases will actually be is a gamble — the jury states that four of the past five years during the recession had property tax increases of less than 1 percent — and senior county officials told the jury they can't forecast real property assessments more than three years in advance.
During their interviews, one senior county official informed the jury that the preliminary budget plan is “a leap of faith,” and another said “it could work," the report states.
"If the projected revenue growth is not realized, meeting the operating cost will require new revenue sources, a decrease in county services, or a combination of these."
The jury is encouraging supervisors to prepare alternative plans to fund the operating costs, and the issue will likely come up Wednesday as supervisors discuss funding to various departments, including the Sheriff.
"There is an uncomfortably high probability that property tax increases will not be adequate, thereby creating a fiscal deficit that will require cuts to county services, a salary freeze, layoffs, a tax increase, or some other painful option," the report states.