The approval of a permanent Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Santa Barbara County was beginning to look a bit hairy for a few moments at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
Three supervisors wanted to move forward with the project, ready to accept more than $2 million on the table from the Orfalea Foundation’s Aware and Prepare Initiative, and to pay for the rest of the project using $4.2 million of set-aside General Fund money that has been accumulating annually for some time. The time was now, they said, pointing to the fact that leaders of the Orfalea initiative were ready to pull the plug on the $2 million gift if something wasn’t done Tuesday, and citing a construction bid that came in a lot cheaper than expected because of the economic climate.
However, Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Doreen Farr considered the timing bad as they both acknowledged the need for an EOC and expressed hesitation given the fiscal state of the county, which faces a potential budget shortfall of $16 million. Neither would budge on their reluctance to spend General Fund money that, though designated for the project, could presumably be shifted over to help struggling county services or programs. “I can’t support just handing this money over,” Farr said. The only way they would move forward with the General Fund cash transfer, they said, was if the money would be replaced in the end. Carbajal suggested the county pursue alternative funding, specifically in the form of a loan.
Four votes were needed for an approval, and the five supervisors had a hard time crafting a solution to the problem, eventually taking a break to allow county staff to work on something all sides could agree on. During the break, Orfalea Foundation leaders stressed to county officials the project must move forward Tuesday, or their $2 million would be taken off the table. After five minutes of working it out, county staff was able to emerge with language pleasing to all five supervisors: The project would move forward as planned, and staff would return at a later date to the board with a debt financing solution-whatever it may be-to reimburse the $4.2 million General Fund designation.
The move capped a more than 10-year effort to get a permanent EOC in Santa Barbara County. It also means that in a little more than a year, county emergency office chief Michael Harris and his staff will be moving out of the basement of the County Administration Building and into a state-of-the-art facility near County Fire Headquarters off Cathedral Oaks in Goleta. The 9,922-square-foot facility, designed to be the center of management for information, resource support, and decision making during a local emergency, will now always be up and running. “We’ll be able to maintain a state of readiness,” Harris said.
Currently, the EOC is housed in a trailer on the county’s Camino del Remedio campus in Goleta, and it takes roughly three hours to fire up computers, telephones, and all the other equipment used there. Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno called the current EOC conditions “abominable.” With the new EOC, the facility will be constantly active, saving the county precious time when an emergency begins.
Not lost on the supervisors was the fact that they more than likely would not have been in the position to bring the EOC to Santa Barbara-an area that has experienced four major fires within the last two years, sits near a major earthquake fault line, and has only one major highway connecting it to the outside world-without help from the Aware and Prepare Initiative, a public private partnership including the Orfalea Foundations, County Office of Emergency Services and James Lee Witt Associates, along with a group of collaborative funders and other organizations. “This has been our priority issue and it’s finally coming together,” said Barbara Anderson, initiative executive director, after the approval. “The EOC is desperately needed and will be a tremendous benefit to the community.”