Airport-style security screening areas were added to the county’s administration buildings in Santa Barbara, seen here, and Santa Maria in July.
Airport-style security screening areas were added to the county’s administration building entrances in Santa Barbara, seen here, and Santa Maria. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

When the Santa Barbara County supervisors approved a contract for building security Tuesday, local farmers called out the expense and asked for more law enforcement resources addressing rural crime.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to extend the security contract with Triumph Protection Group for two years, for an additional $3,294,540, with Supervisor Bob Nelson dissenting.

The company provides patrols, security at county buildings and COVID-19 testing sites, and handles entrance screening at Superior Court and administration buildings.

Jim Stollberg of Hampton Farming said he and his clients have had more than a dozen thefts and property damage incidents in the past four years, costing them more than $100,000.

During public comment, he asked the Board of Supervisors to allocate more people to law enforcement patrols and dedicate a prosecutor for crimes against businesses.

Larry Ferini of Rancho Laguna Farms, who is also a county planning commissioner, said rural crime has a big impact on agricultural communities.

“It’s about once a month we get hit, and it’s usually between $10,000 and $30,000 of damage, well, damage and theft,” he said.

If a tractor gets stolen, and some drip tape and materials, crews that come out the next day don’t have equipment to work with and can lose wages for the day, he said. One of his farms’ neighbors said he’s going to stay out at the field to try to protect his assets, out of frustration, Ferini said.

“I’m worried about his safety,” he added.

Ferini asked the county to put the issue of rural crime on its Board of Supervisors agenda for a larger discussion, which they ultimately supported.

“We’re getting hit hard with crime,” Bob Engel of Engel & Gray said during public comment.

He said Saturday was Farm Day, an open house for the public showcasing the agricultural industry.

“On Monday, we showed up for work and three trucks had catalytic converters cut off,” he said.

He also asked the supervisors to put more money into the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office.

The issue of rural crime wasn’t on the agenda, but the supervisors asked for a presentation from the sheriff and district attorney on what’s being done to address it.

Supervisor Gregg Hart said he understood why commenters came to the board, since they have public meetings, but it’s the elected department heads of sheriff and district attorney who are responsible.

Supervisor Das Williams said he didn’t think the board should have a presentation on rural crime resources “since we have already allocated money necessary to do this.”

The Board of Supervisors has put aside several million dollars for 12 over-hire positions, which means the Sheriff’s Office can fill them if it meets full staffing capacity for its other budget positions.

“We have already allocated that money. They simply don’t get it until they actually hire the people,” Williams said in response to the public comments. “And so, this is a disingenuous effort to leverage us for more money when we’ve already promised the money for this and other public safety purposes.”

The Sheriff’s Office plans to install license plate readers around the county, and addressing rural crime was cited as a reason for the pilot program.

Undersheriff Craig Bonner said the system will focus on significant criminal investigations, with a focus on violent crime, high-value property crime and rural crime.

A challenge with using license plate information for criminal investigations is that suspects will use a stolen vehicle to commit a crime, like people who steal a vehicle and then go out and steal a tractor, Bonner told the Board of Supervisors last month. 

New County Administration Building Security Screening Installed

Metal detectors and X-ray machines were added at the entrances to the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria administration buildings on July 13 to “reduce exposure to external risk,” said Gary Thompson, the county’s physical security coordinator from General Services.

“Without screening, people who want to do harm to persons would have a greater advantage to do so,” he said.

The security was added because the buildings are high-profile, hold public meetings, and often have “visitors suffering from mental illness and erratic behavior,” he said.

In the first six weeks of screening, staff saw 3,087 visitors to the buildings and seized 159 items, including knives (from pocket knives to hunting knives), tools such as box cutters, pepper spray canisters and a few Tasers, Thompson said.

Two people carrying guns, with concealed carry weapon permits, were told to return the firearms to their vehicles, which they did without incident, he said.

Nelson opposed the April vote to add the airport-style security screening to the two buildings and voted against the contract extension on Tuesday, saying he is opposed to the enhanced security. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.