Police vehicle in Solvang
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement services for Solvang as well as Carpinteria, Goleta and Buellton. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Expressing “surprise and deep disappointment,” four cities have united to protest the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department’s proposed rate hikes for providing law enforcement services.

Goleta, Carpinteria, Solvang and Buellton all contract with the sheriff’s department to act as their police departments. However, the bills seeking additional money owed from a prior year and a peek at the proposed rate for 2021-22 have prompted city leaders to each file a notice of contract dispute.

“As the entities entrusted by our constituents to responsibly manage and allocate our budgets for the optimal public benefit, we are alarmed by the Sheriff’s Office’s unexpected and significant proposed cost increases,” according to a draft letter to be signed by the four mayors and sent to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Bill Brown.

All four cities have questioned the methodology used to arrive at the increases, ranging from 27% to 45%.

“The cities have come together to demonstrate a united position in requesting information that will increase transparency as to the basis for any and all proposed cost increases,” Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte said.

The cities want the sheriff’s department to recalculate the 2021-22 charges consistent with the terms of the existing contracts, provide information to justify any increases, participate in good faith negotiations for any contract amendments and make the increases effective in 2022-23, according to Carpinteria City Manager Dave Durflinger.

He said the problem appears to be related to the sheriff’s department calculating rates using a new methodology.

“Cities haven’t had a chance to have good faith negotiation on things that obviously require amendments to the contract to implement any new methodology,” Durflinger said.

The cities also have complained that the sheriff’s department didn’t provide adequate information justifying the higher costs. 

In November, the cities were advised to expect a 5.5% increase, but in January, they received the adjustment of 37% for 2021-22.

“It was a big surprise. We don’t believe they followed the methodology of open process and negotiation in informing the cities of these calculations,” Solvang City Manager Xenia Bradford said, adding that the “very significant increase” was dropped on cities the day before the deadline.

The cities have asked for additional information from the county to analyze the data leading to the higher costs. 

In addition to the new higher rate for next year, the cities balked at so-called “true-up” costs for 2019-20, through which the county seeks the difference between the estimated and actual costs for service. 

“The sheriff’s department has applied those true-up costs but has included — major issue here — in the current year billing that patrol hours are a part of the true-up billing. Of course, that’s not the case; it’s not part of the contract. That affects the current year and going forward,” Durflinger said. 

“In Buellton’s case, the true-up costs are rather large, larger than expected,” Buellton City Manager Scott Wolfe said. 

Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department cost calculations

A chart shows the factors that are driving cost calculations for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department to provide law enforcement services to the cities of Goleta, Carpinteria, Buellton and Solvang. (Contributed graphic)

Goleta’s $7.6 million contract estimate for 2019-20 would top $10 million for the true-up and next year’s costs, for a 29.4% increase, while Carpinteria’s $3.8 million cost would climb to $5.6 million.

The sheriff’s department proposed that Solvang pay nearly $2.5 million, not $1.8 million, while Buellton’s bill would go from $1.8 million to $3.1 million. 

“What it boils down to is the four cities, in looking at this, came up with the feeling the contract we have with the county is not being adhered to in the way it should be,” Wolfe said.

The cities have contended that the sheriff’s department is attempting to recoup costs for hours not in the contracts and improperly added a 3% inflation rate.

Notices of dispute as spelled out in the contracts for services led to a negotiation period that will last into early March. If an agreement can’t be reached, all parties could enter into nonbinding mediation. 

Brown told Noozhawk that the sheriff’s department values its long-standing, positive relationships with the four cities.

“We have heard their concerns about the proposed cost increases, which are significant,” Brown said. “We are sympathetic to their position about the impact of rising costs, as they mirror our own concerns. 

“We are continuing to work on this issue by re-examining the methodology by which the costs were estimated, and exploring possible adjustments or alternatives. We have and will continue to meet with the cities in search of a mutually agreeable resolution.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.