Santa Barbara County’s budget hearings are, for at least the third straight year, an exercise full of pain and pleading, cutting and shifting to bring the budget into balance. In the midst of a country-wide recession and in another consecutive year of stagnant or dropping revenue, county officials are out of low-hanging fruit to chop.
Monday — the first of three scheduled days of presentations, discussions, public comment, and eventual deliberation and decision by the Board of Supervisors — started on a positive note: The board ratified agreements with several employee groups that will save the county $16.5 million, a significant step in helping offset the projected $40 million in projected shortfall.
The county has seen its strategic reserve drop from $33.6 million in December 2007, to a predicted $9.1 million in 2010-2011. The proposed budget suggests spending $13.3 million of strategic reserve money; one-time monies to help stop the bleeding and save jobs and boost ongoing programs, as well as $6.2 million for an Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services settlement liability with the state.
A discussion was set to take place Wednesday on possibly implementing a new program that would allow property owners to finance green improvements to their homes or businesses. As part of the program, named emPower, the county would front the money for upgrades such as insulated doors and windows, and energy efficient toilets, water heaters, and air conditioners, and then residents would pay back via their property tax bills.
County staff have suggested the program could bring $160 million in contracts and create as many as 900 new jobs over the next 10 years. Though designed to be self-funding, and one of the largest economic and community development efforts in county history, some are having problems with emPower because of the amount of money needed to kick-start the program — $5 million in General Fund money — even though that money will eventually be returned to the county.
And that’s why the vote to support or deny the program will be close. Though there is widespread support among community groups for the program — which will return $20 to $40 for every $1 invested by the county in a time of unprecedented downturn — 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno made it no mystery how he felt about funding the program after the presentations by several county departments Monday outlining various upcoming cuts, including Probation, District Attorney, Public Defender, and, perhaps most vividly, the Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff Bill Brown told the board of how he has lost 26 percent of his sworn management in the last few years, as well as seen 57 positions unfunded in the same span of time. “I feel as though I’ve been presiding over the dismantling of the Sheriff’s Department,” he told the board. This budget cycle, in an effort to keep deputies on the streets, Brown was proposing the closing of the Santa Maria Jail, a temporary holding facility for accused criminals before they can be brought to the main jail in Goleta. Though the facility is the least-efficient part of the department, using 14 staff for 29 inmates, closure would mean law enforcement agencies — Santa Maria Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and the Sheriff’s Department included — would have to transport individuals down to Goleta at the time of arrest, leading to three-hour car rides that would take significant resources from those agencies. Reducing programs such as DARE is also on the table.
“I don’t even know why we’re talking about this,” said Centeno, a former police chief, after listening — not only to Brown but also to several other North County officials — to how devastating to North County law enforcement it would be to close the jail in Santa Maria. “We’re talking about a $5 million program, and staffing it, and here we’re talking about the destruction of law enforcement. There is no way that I will even think of closing the Santa Maria Jail.”
So it remains to be seen what will happen with the emPower program and what other significant changes to the county budget will be made by the board come the end of the week. But, for the third straight year, it certainly won’t be pretty.