It was such a love fest for Sheriff Bill Brown at the county supervisors’ meeting this Tuesday that board chair Janet Wolfe gushed she was both “100 percent” and “110 percent” behind his plan to put a half-cent sales tax increase before county voters this coming November for the construction of new jail in North County. “I’m very satisfied,” added Supervisor Doreen Farr. And Supervisor Joni Gray exclaimed, “I’m willing —actually excited about supporting this.”
Even with the supervisors’ unanimous wind at his back, Brown and his sales tax have anything but smooth sailing ahead. A sales tax increase requires a super-majority of two-thirds to pass, almost a political impossibility in the face of any organized opposition, no matter how marginal. Two weeks ago, when Brown first brought the proposed initiative—which he estimates would generate $30 million a year—to the supervisors for support, they expressed chagrin that he waited so long to broach the subject with them. They insisted that he “tweak” key details and bring his proposal back. Brown clearly took their suggestions to heart and, for at least this week, his efforts paid off.
The basic package remains much the same. Of the $30 million a year the initiative would raise, half will go to building—and then running—the new 304-bed facility on county-owned land in North County. (In addition, the State of California set aside $56.3 million in jail construction bonds for the new jail several years.) The remainder would be split three ways between local law enforcement agencies, local firefighting agencies, and a host of prevention and intervention programs designed to reduce the county’s recidivism rate of 70 percent.
Brown has insisted that the prevention component is essential to mitigating overcrowding at the county’s main jail where up to 1,800 prisoners a year are released early because of lack of space. “These are not touchy-feely types of programs,” Brown stated, arguing they were substantiated by “solid empirical evidence,” not just good intentions. They also make for good politics. Mental health advocate Susan Riordan noted that the number of people behind bars has quadrupled between 1980 and 2004. Many of those, she said, were mentally ill, self-medicating, or chemically dependent, but not violent or dangerous. Riordan suggested that Brown might need to get “touchy-feely,” adding, “The only reason we’re supporting this is that there’s a component involving treatment and prevention.”
At Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s insistence, Brown agreed to share more of the funds raised with the County Fire Department. At Supervisor Wolf’s urging, he agreed to give a share of the proceeds to County Probation. At the suggestion of Supervisor Joe Centeno, Brown changed the very name of the initiative to give prominent play to the term “gang suppression.” He also extended the life span of the bond from 10 to 14 years and created a citizens oversight committee to ensure the funds were spent as intended.
And Brown brought along a few high-powered friends, like Santa Barbara and Lompoc police chiefs Cam Sanchez and Tim Dabney, respectively, like County Fire chief Mike Dyer, and like Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino, whose son, Steve, was just elected to replace Centeno at the expiration of Centeno’s term this winter. He also brought along two former North County supervisors—DeWayne Holmdahl and Tom Urbanske—to sing the proposal’s praises. Holmdahl noted that the need for a North County jail was screamingly obvious 25 years ago, adding that Brown’s plan was far better than the jail bond proposal that went down to overwhelming defeat in 2000. “It’s the best one I’ve ever seen,” he said. More than that, Brown enlisted the support of Carpinteria Councilmember Joe Armendariz—who also heads the County Taxpayers Association. “Nobody hates higher taxes more than I do,” declared Armendariz. But of the ballot measure, Armendariz said, “It’s pretty close to a perfect proposal.”
The most discouraging words came from Andy Caldwell, spokesperson for the conservative COLAB, who expressed concern that the new 304-bed facility could be overwhelmed if the California Department of Corrections forces county governments throughout the state to assume incarceration responsibilities for up to 40,000 state inmates serving time on relatively minor offenses—as is now being discussed. But for all his pessimism, Caldwell said he hadn’t taken a position on the initiative yet and wasn’t sure that he would.
Caldwell and Armendariz—political bosom buddies—could prove key to the success or failure of Brown’s bond measure. Their support was definitely critical two years ago to the passage of Measure A—the half-cent sales tax increase used to pay for a wide range of freeway widening, road improvement, and mass transit projects. Likewise, North County voters are much more tax adverse than their South Coast compatriots, so Brown’s show of support from North County politicos was strategic. To help make his case, Brown will be able to argue—but only because of a fluke of timing—that even with the half-cent sales tax increase, the total sales tax charged in Santa Barbara County will drop by one-quarter of a percent. He will also argue that by building a new jail, the county can “save lives, reduce crime, and restore integrity to the criminal justice system.”
Even so, his challenge remains immense. A survey conducted early last year showed that only 45 percent of likely voters supported the tax. That number jumped to 59 percent after hearing arguments on its behalf. But that’s still considerably shy of the two-thirds needed for passage.