Sheriff’s substation in Goleta.
The City of Goleta, with a sheriff’s substation in the Camino Real Marketplace, is expected to join Buellton, Carpinteria and Solvang in disputing the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office bill for providing law enforcement services. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Four cities once again have disputed the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office bill for providing law enforcement services in Goleta, Carpinteria, Buellton and Solvang, contending the proposed price hikes aren’t justified. 

The quartet last year challenged “unreasonable rate increases” ranging from 27% to more than 48% and ended up resolving the issue for the end of the five-year contract.

However, concerns returned with the proposed rates for 2022-23 for the four cities that pay the Sheriff’s Office to act as their police departments.

City councils for Carpinteria and Solvang authorized their city managers to sign a notice of dispute on Monday, followed by Buellton’s council acting Thursday night. The Goleta City Council is expected to take the same step during Tuesday’s meeting.

Votes were unanimous among those participating in Carpinteria, Solvang and Buellton. Solvang Mayor Charlie Uhrig recused himself from the discussion and vote since he works for the Sheriff’s Office.

“What the notice of dispute really does is give us time to resolve the matter,” Carpinteria City Manager Dave Durflinger said. 

Carpinteria’s proposed rate would increase 15%, or nearly $700,000. Last year’s annual increase hike totaled about 18%.

For Solvang, the rate would rise 15%.

“We feel this is an unreasonable increase, and we also have contracted with a financial expert to work with us to really drive into the model for the cost allocation,” City Manager Xenia Bradford told her council Monday.

In Buellton, a hike of 11.2% sparked uncertainty about the data and concerns for the lack of transparency regarding the calculation. Last year, Buellton objected to a 2021-22 proposal for a 45% increase.

“We are just not comfortable with the rates as they’re being proposed,” City Manager Scott Wolfe told his council Thursday night.

Goleta currently pays 14.75% more for law enforcement services this year after negotiations led to a lower hike.

For 2022-23, the Sheriff’s Office has sought a 13.4% increase, or a hike of more than $1.2 million annually, prompting city staff to say in a report that the new rate is not justified. The agenda for the meeting is available here.

“It is expected that service level cuts could be a part of the necessary considerations in response to the final contract amount, should it remain anywhere close to the amount proposed by the Sheriff’s Office,” according to a staff report.

Consultant Russ Branson, who gave presentations to three councils recently and will do a fourth for Goleta on Tuesday, said his analysis of the latest proposal identified a disconnect between the cost and the hours of service, calling the calculation complex.

The cities have purchased a static number of hours, slightly more than 60,000 in total, while the county’s hours have steadily declined, he said. That’s important because one part of the county formula calculates the cost per deputy service unit times hours of service to determine what each city owes.

“As the county hours go down, the cost per service hour goes up, which has the effect of shifting more costs to the cities over the county for different years,” Branson said. 

In recent years, 70% of any changes in costs have been paid by the four cities, Branson said.

Compared with 2019, the four cities would pay $4.1 million more in 2023 while the county’s cost is $1.3 million more for the same period, he said. 

“You’re not getting any more service, and yet you’re paying a much higher percent change of costs for the contracts,” Branson said.

The hourly price for deputy service unit also has changed. Instead of $199 in 2021 per deputy service hour, the Sheriff’s Office has proposed cities pay closer to $270 for 2023 after including a number of other factors, Branson said.

One key factor in the calculation centers on the so-called “true-up” costs for a prior year, through which the county seeks the difference between the estimated and actual costs for service.

“The problem is that general increase wasn’t the whole story,” Branson said. “There’s still lots of questions how the data in the model and how the hours the county allocates in the direct model impacts what you pay as a city. It doesn’t appear to be completely related to service.”

The hefty hikes have an “outsized impact” on the small cities because of their typically smaller budgets, Branson said.

Law enforcement services usually account for the largest item in a city budget.

“The Sheriff’s Office is engaged in active discussions with the cities and will refrain from comment as we continue to work towards resolution,” spokeswoman Raquel Zick said.

If the dispute can’t be resolved, the four cities and the Sheriff’s Office could wind up in mediation.

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