The biggest financial planning news for Santa Barbara County wasn’t discussed much during Monday’s budget workshop – the North County Branch Jail construction bids came in much higher than estimated, which could jeopardize the viability of the project.
The county Board of Supervisors has long been concerned about the ongoing operational cost of a new jail – another $18 million per year, to start – but the construction bids were a new blow when they were turned in last week.
Sheriff Bill Brown said the news is a huge roadblock to the project and leaves the county with limited options.
Since the news came on Thursday, there will be a more in-depth discussion of the project’s future in May.
Santa Barbara County budgeted $67 million to build the 376-bed facility near Santa Maria, and the three bids came in between $79 million and $81 million.
Brown was confronted by the supervisors for his department’s continued low staffing, with 56 vacancies as of Monday.
Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Peter Adam called the shortage a crisis, and told Brown to find a better strategy to recruit new employees.
The department plans to “cast the net farther and wider” to recruit more new deputies and lateral transfers from other departments, Brown said.
The Sheriff’s Department uses the funded salaries from vacant positions to fund overtime positions, Brown said.
“It’s unquestionable that having minimum staffing levels puts strain on the workforce, and having vacancies that cause us to bring people back on overtime has an impact on morale. That in turn has a partial impact on what’s happening in terms of recruitment and retention,” Brown said.
Many public-safety departments asked the supervisors to fund more positions in next year’s budget, and Brown was no exception.
“You’re asking for additional money for new positions, yet you can’t fill the 56 we’ve already funded,” Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said. “I think the main focus should be on funded positions that are not filled.”
To stay within budget for next year, Brown proposes closing the current Santa Maria Branch Jail at the city’s substation.
Brown is asking the Board of Supervisors for $1 million to keep the facility open.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin urged the county to keep the Branch Jail open, pointing out the long drive law enforcement agencies have to make if they take people into custody to Santa Barbara.
The county is in dire need of the new jail too, he said, since the Santa Maria Branch Jail can’t take any women or people with medical problems.
Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino pointed out that a Santa Maria police officer is off the streets for a minimum of three hours to drive someone down to the Santa Barbara Main Jail.
Overall, county department heads are asking for $17.3 million more in ongoing funding and $11.8 million in one-time funding. That includes more staff positions, mostly, and the county is attempting to rebuild its organization after cuts made during the recession, Alvarez said.
However, there’s no way the county can fund even close to every request on the list.
County employee salaries appear stable over time, but compensation costs as a whole have gone up dramatically due to health-insurance and pension costs, Alvarez said.
Per-Employee Compensation Proposed 2016-17 Amount Salary & Benefits $131,379 Salary $75,714 Pension $28,252 Health Insurance $9,206 Workers’ Compensation $3,762
“We’re doing the grown-up thing and tackling the issue that’s been ignored forever,” Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said of the county paying to cover unfunded pension liability.The per-employee health insurance costs have more than doubled since 2008 and are expected to keep jumping 10 about percent per year, he said.
“There’s a lot more that goes into a paycheck than the salary.”
Five-year plans show long-term deficits for every department if they keep status-quo budgets, Alvarez said.
Department heads for the District Attorney, Public Defender and Probation talked about increasing caseloads and the need for additional staff and resources.
District Attorney Joyce Dudley asked the board to continue funding for an environmental attorney, who is working on the Refugio Oil Spill investigation, among other things.
The above-normal number of murder cases, particularly multi-defendant cases including the MS-13 gang murder case in Santa Maria, has added work for both the District Attorney and Public Defender offices, leaders told the supervisors.
They’re also both working to integrate new staff while losing experienced veterans.
The Public Defender’s Office lost 11 out of 32 lawyers last year, interim Public Defender Kenneth Clayman said.
The office processed 1,700 resentencing petitions from Proposition 47 applicants and expects more in the coming year, he said.
Proposition 47 also resulted in fewer felony court filings, courts executive officer Darrel Parker said.
Design plans for the new Figueroa Division Superior Court building are underway, but the state told the county to cut costs before it goes out to bid. It will probably delay the project up to a year, Parker said. Construction plans are complicated since the existing court will keep operating while the new courthouse is built literally 8 feet away, he said.
The probation department said the Los Prietos Boys camp has a high completion rate, near 90 percent.
The department needs more staff in medium-risk supervision or high-risk individuals could be bumped down to low-risk, with fewer visits and case management, staff said.
Last year, the County Fire Department was sent to a record-breaking 50 mutual aid assignments outside the county, Fire Chief Eric Peterson said. Plans to rebuild the Cuyama station likely would boost mutual aid assignments as well, since it’s near Kern and San Luis Obispo Counties, he said.
The Board of Supervisors will meet again to hear more budget workshop presentations Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m. at 105 E. Anapamu St.
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.