The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors kicked off the first of three budget workshops on Monday by discussing proposed budgets for the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the County Fire Department, the Probation Department and the Sheriff’s Department for fiscal year 2021-22.

While the final budget decisions will not be made until the Board of Supervisors budget adoption hearings on June 8 and June 10, the workshops provide an opportunity for the board to receive information and provide direction to staff on certain policy issues that affect department budgets. The public is encouraged to watch the workshops to provide input on ideas to fund critical services.

The county’s preliminary operating budget is estimated at $1.34 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, an increase of about $150 million from the past year, according to a letter filed to the board by the County Executive Office. Additionally, this is the third year in a row that service level reductions are not proposed by any of the departments.

Public safety services, which include the departments presented at Monday’s workshop, receive almost half of the county’s general fund contribution, according to Nancy Anderson, assistant county executive officer.

Operating expenditures, salaries and benefits, services and supplies, and other charges remain fairly flat in the court system and are anticipated to increase 5% to 7% annually during the next five-year period, Anderson said.

The Public Defender’s Office was the first department discussed at Monday’s workshop, and Tracy Macuga spoke passionately about the county’s need to enact transparency and accountability, and increase utilization of data in law enforcement agencies.

She told a hypothetical story of someone locked in jail, not convicted and perceived innocent, waiting almost a year for their trial date. This problem is exacerbated, she said, because of the “massive backlog” of cases caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic on the department’s workload will become increasingly unsustainable without proper staffing, she said.

“If we are truly invested in making the community a safer place, we deserve a justice system that does not operate like a conveyor belt,” she added.

The pandemic presented an “extraordinary opportunity” to reimagine public safety and invest in community-based alternatives through diversion, Macuga said.

“The pandemic forced a radical and accelerated change in the criminal justice system as a whole,” she said. “The narrative that incarceration makes our community safer is a false narrative. Without transparency, without data, without accountability, we will be lost in rhetoric.”

The department’s preliminary operating budget is about $16.7 million, with $10.6 million coming from general fund contributions.

The department requested an additional $118,600 to add a permanent full-time employee position for IT staffing, $112,000 for one permanent full-time accountant position and $151,600 to convert two extra help positions into permanent full-time employees.

One of the department’s main goals for the upcoming fiscal year is “digitize, mobilize, modernize.” It is looking to accomplish that by utilizing cloud storage systems, beginning to enter data into the upgraded version of eDefender, replacing external fillable forms and manual email requests, and automating a multitude of work processes within the office, among others.

Macuga said the increase in data sharing and data production is necessary in order to service the entire county and figure out where problems lie within the criminal justice system.

In the past year, the Public Defender’s Office secured three grants totaling $900,000, according to Macuga. That money will help facilitate the office’s transition to cloud storage and provide nine months of funding for a data analyst, she added.

The department also wants to expand client advocacy by dedicating a specialized unit that will facilitate the process for individuals seeking post-conviction release and adapting business processes to accommodate the shift to virtual litigation and appearances.

The Public Defender’s Office will continue to address the underlying life circumstances that lead clients to criminal justice involvement and recidivism, Macuga said.

“Our goals are not aspirational or unrealistic; they’re achievable with your continued support, and they will make the community safer,” Macuga said to the board. “When this period of our county history is examined, it is not simply going to be what we did during the crisis. We are going to be judged by what we do now in this moment, at this time, with these decisions.”

The District Attorney’s Office also is facing a historic backlog of cases because of the pandemic, which translates to a future unprecedented spike in workloads, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said.

The department will use $165,000 of its one-time funds to purchase hardware and software licenses in preparation for the upgrade to a new case management system that is to replace the current 20-year-old system. It also will purchase new utility servers that will act as system backup and print servers, Dudley said.

When asked about a data dashboard that would share the work of the District Attorney’s Office, Dudley said she does not believe that the department has a system that supports data and doesn’t trust the data that exist. 

“If we give inaccurate information, it creates a public safety issue,” Dudley said. “A rush to justice, as we’ve often seen, ends up leaving a lot of vulnerable victims behind.”

The office will continue its commitment to diversion programs and has worked with the Public Defender’s Office and law enforcement to establish a new pre-filing, pre-arraignment diversion program, Dudley said. 

The District Attorney’s Office also will continue to partner with the Second District Office to implement a Neighborhood Court pilot program in Goleta to serve as a restorative justice-based pre-filing diversion program for misdemeanor offenses and infractions.

The department’s preliminary budget is about $30.5 million, with about half of that funding coming from the general fund contributions. 

The District Attorney’s Office requested a little more than $1 million in expansion requests for the upcoming budget year, including funding for an eSCARS — electronic suspected child abuse report system — a coordinator, two discovery clerks to manage data, 1.5 full-time employee positions for the post-conviction litigation unit, a data analyst and a digital storage system upgrade.

The department will focus on recruitment, development and retention of staff because “people are (the) most valuable resource in our fight for truth and justice,” Dudley said.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department has a handful of upcoming projects and priorities. First and foremost, Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said he wants to provide a competitive bid for ambulance transport services for the county that would enhance the levels of existing services to residents, area hospitals, and skilled nursing and medical facilities.

The department is preparing a competitive bid for ambulance services with or without a private partner, Hartwig said.

The department is in the process of replacing the 70-year-old fire station in Cuyama with a new fire and sheriff station, with a total capital cost of $6 million to the department. 

It is also securing funding to establish a regional fire communication facility to dispatch resources to fire, medical and other emergencies. The architectural design is anticipated to begin in fiscal year 2021-22, and the total capital cost is estimated at $10 million.

The Fire Department is poised to complete a high-gear upgrade and belly tank installation and modifications to one of the county’s helicopters to transform it into a mission-ready Firehawk. The Firehawk is a “low-cost alternative to change the way we fight fire,” Hartwig said.

The department has a preliminary operating budget of $93.6 million and asked for no expansion requests.

The Probation Department has a preliminary operating budget of about $63.2 million, with $31.2 million of that coming from general fund contributions.

In order to submit a balanced budget, the department will have to eliminate 19 positions, Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman said. That is primarily because of the loss of $2 million that resulted from the passage of Assembly Bill 1869.

Services provided by the Division of Juvenile Justice will transition from the state to the counties beginning July 1, and the counties will now house and provide programs for youth and young adults previously sentenced to DJJ. The county’s estimated allocation from the state for the upcoming fiscal year is about $424,000, and $212,100 has been budgeted to fund structural improvements and equipment necessary to renovate facilities in order to house that population.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the department is focused on optimizing outcomes through the implementation of evidence-based practices. It plans to do so by completing the interrater reliability evaluation of the positive achievement change tool and correctional offender management profiling for alternative sanctions to ensure that the assessment instruments are being used with fidelity, Heitman said.

The department also will incorporate Whole Youth Project data and training elements involving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning and gender-nonconforming or transgender youth into policy operations.

The department submitted two expansion requests, totaling $384,900, for one full-time professional standards unit support position, and two full-time employees to enhance the existing pretrial supervision program.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has an anticipated operating budget of $176.5 million, an increase of $11 million when compared with the previous year, according to Hope Vasquez, chief financial officer for the Sheriff’s Department.

The department is working on opening the Northern Branch Jail, beginning a jail-based competency treatment program in the main jail, deploying three co-response teams to respond to mental illness crisis calls countywide and increasing online reporting capability, among others.

It is requesting nearly $2.2 million in expansion requests, with $480,000 of that coming from one-time funds.

The department is requesting a data center future replacement fund, costing $161,300, and a full-time data analyst position, also costing $161,300. The Sheriff’s Department wants to bring on six full-time employee equivalents to expand the cannabis compliance team, using $350,000 of one-time funds and $1,071,500 of ongoing funding.

In 2020, the cannabis compliance team missed the opportunity to conduct enforcement against 21 suspected illegal cannabis operations, according to Chief Deputy Craig Bonner.

“It is apparent that they are not able to fully meet the county’s need,” he said.

Expanding the compliance team is a critical component of decreasing illegal cannabis operations in the county, he added.

The remaining $443,000 of the expansion requests are for body-worn cameras that will enhance individual and collective ability to objectively document the department’s work, Bonner said. The department is prepared to designate $130,000 of its one-time funds to purchase the first camera, Bonner said.

The next budget workshop is scheduled for Wednesday and will include policy and executive group budgets, including the Board of Supervisors, the County Executive Officer and the County Counsel. It also will discuss the health and human services departments, including Child Support Services, First 5 Santa Babara, Public Health and others.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.