In a $100-million budget, $170,000 might seem like chump change. But to Bob Trimble, director of the Sobering Center in the New Faulding Hotel on Haley Street, it’s all he’s got. For the past 16 years, Trimble has helped keep nearly 20,000 drunken people—about 1,400 a year—simultaneously off the streets and out of jail. Many he’s referred into various rehab programs. Others he’s kept from entangling—and getting entangled by—Santa Barbara’s already congested court system. And some he’s actually managed to steer into a life of sobriety. All this has been accomplished on the city’s dime and with the help of eight assistants. What that buys is space on the floor—which gets hosed down daily—along with sleeping mats, blankets, and a change of clothes if need be. “It’s not the Motel Six,” Trimble said. Cots and mattresses could not survive the abuse. “You can only imagine,” he said by way of elaboration. But with the City of Santa Barbara now facing a $9 million budget shortfall, the future of the Sobering Center is in peril. Written into the first draft of City’s Hall proposed budget is the complete elimination of Trimble’s funding.
Trimble talks about his passion being compassion. He ran the treatment program at the County Jail for 12 years; he has a master’s degree in clinical psychology. “These people are not down here because they’ve made a choice to get drunk and be a nuisance,” he said. “They’re suffering from a disease.” But with City Hall, Trimble is more prone to couch his argument in terms of dollars and cents. Without the Sobering Center, city cops would have to take public inebriates to County Jail and book them, a process that takes about 90 minutes. That’s 90 minutes a patrol officer—which on average costs City Hall $150,000 a year in salary, overtime, benefits, and retirement—could be doing something else. “Besides, the jail is already over crowded, so they’ll just cite and release them,” Trimble added. “And they’ll be back downtown within 30 minutes.”
The Sobering Center was started in 1994 when City Hall grew tired of paying County Jail $120 in fees each time deputies booked street drunks and others charged with DUI offenses, open container law violations, or public inebriation. About 40 percent of the center’s guests—who stay in shifts of four to six hours—are homeless. A few years ago, California agreed to pick up the tab for booking fees. But with the state now facing a $20-billion budget shortfall, it’s only a matter of time before City Hall gets stuck with the booking fee bill again. “With 1,400 people a year, that could come to $200,000,” Trimble said. Actually, it’s closer to $168,000. “Either way, it’s a good chunk of change.” And that doesn’t count the 25 people a month Trimble estimates the Sobering Center keeps out of Cottage Hospital’s emergency rooms, an amenity for which Cottage pays $10,000 a year.
Mayor Helene Schneider is getting emails from people stating the Sobering Center saved their lives. “We are talking life and death issues here,” read one. “Make no mistake.” Schneider termed the proposal to gut the Sobering Center “nuts” and “just silly,” pointing out that City Hall just invested a significant amount to help restore the New Faulding Hotel. But for Schneider and members of the City Council, there’s no shortage of cuts that fall into the “nuts” or “silly” category. Last Friday, for example, the council met with the Santa Barbara school board to discuss plans to save the crossing guard program, which costs $120,000 a year. Traditionally, this service has been paid for by the Santa Barbara Police Department. Last year, the School District paid. Next year, no one knows where the money will come from. In the meantime, Schneider said the idea of having kids cross Las Positas Road unassisted on their way to Adams Elementary School “is just plain nuts.”
Last Thursday, at the first of many public workshops on the proposed budget cuts, the council chambers were packed with supporters of public access television, which has been slated for $100,000 in cuts. That’s a reduction in city support by one-third. Barry Spacks, one of Santa Barbara’s former poet laureates, likened City Hall to someone trying to lose weight by cutting out their eyes and lips. The council’s ability to save such programs, Schneider said, depends on how much the unions representing city workers are willing to give up at the bargaining table. A 5 percent cut—$2.6-million worth of concessions—she said, won’t save any programs—or the jobs of 16 city workers now facing layoffs. To salvage those, she said, an additional $1.2 million in concessions will be required. At this point the Police Officers Association has proposed a 5 percent reduction—which was rejected by the council—and the Service Employees International Union has proposed closer to 7.5 percent.