With more than 100 layoffs looming over the Sheriff’s Department, questions about the department’s four helicopters — one is pictured here deployed during the Gap Fire off Old San Marcos Road — and one plane have grown more pointed.
Paul Wellman (file)

Sheriff Bill Brown has a lot going on.

In addition to being Santa Barbara County’s top cop, he runs the jail and Coroner’s Bureau, and he’s in charge of a public safety department that received 132,718 calls for service in 2010. He also heads the county’s largest agency, which takes 62 percent of its funding from the General Fund.

That also means he’s in one of the largest worlds of hurt when it comes to this year’s budget bloodbath. Countywide, the potential cuts sit at $72 million. In the Sheriff’s Department alone, that deficit is more than $8 million.

As a result, Brown is looking at the prospect of cutting 62 positions — a combination of already vacant spots and real people in actual positions — and reducing services. “This year more than any other year, people are going to feel it,” said department spokesperson Drew Sugars. Brown is on vacation.

On the Sheriff’s Department proposed chopping block is a lot of specialties, among them school resource deputies, the Gang Enforcement Team, and the Community Services Bureau.

Just like last year, Brown is also proposing to close the 20-bed Santa Maria Jail. (That was avoided in 2010 when the Board of Supervisors allocated funding to keep it open.) The closure would mean authorities arresting individuals in North County cities such as Guadalupe or Santa Maria would either have to issue a ticket, or drive an arrestee all the way down to the main jail in Santa Barbara, taking an officer off the street for a substantial part of their shift. “It would be disastrous, plain and simple,” said Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino.

The jail issue was likely further complicated by recent news the state will be releasing tens of thousands of state prisoners after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The county is still figuring out what the trickle-down effect might be. General estimates put the figure at something like 300 prisoners being sent back to the county, which has been dealing with its own jail overcrowding for years.

Compared to his predecessors, Brown has come closest to getting a new North County Jail, securing a $56.3-million conditional grant. The proposed budget includes setting aside around $1 million to go toward operation of that new jail, if it’s ever built. Additionally, a remodel of a gathering room in the basement of the current jail will open up some more beds for inmates.

But that doesn’t solve the problem for cities that have to drive inmates down from North County. “We’ve got a higher population, higher crime statistics, and yet they’re going to close the jail that serves the population here,” Lavagnino said. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

Compared to fiscal year 2007-2008, the Sheriff’s Department will spend almost $15 million more in 2011-2012, but will have more than 100 fewer employees than it did for the same time period. A good part of that increased cost is salaries and benefits. Members of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (DSA) most recently received 6 percent in wage increases in February, 3 percent of which had been deferred from 2010. The bargaining unit, whose contract expires in 2013, is scheduled to receive another 3-percent increase in August. According to the county, the Sheriff’s Department will have a $4.15-million cost of benefits due to significant increases in retirement costs and $1.5 million because of negotiated raises.

Chris Corbett, president of the DSA, said the union is in the midst of open communications with the county and met twice earlier this week with officials. He said the union, which has deferred and conceded much over the last few years, is an unfair target and that no one is getting rich off the setup members have. “At some point, we can’t be the only answer,” he said. “It’s an unfair target to say we’re the blame when it’s budget time, but we’re the guys you want to show up when you call 9-1-1.”

He said the Sheriff’s Department “shouldn’t have any specialty anything” if it means employee jobs are lost. “We want to keep fully employed,” he said. And there are some specialties, it appears, that some say deserve closer scrutiny. For example, the Sheriff’s Department has the largest number of employee take-home vehicles in the county, 69 out of the 89 total, mostly used by personnel who are on call to respond to emergencies.

The sheriff’s fixed-wing plane, since the beginning of 2008, has gone on 56 flights. Of those, about a dozen were to keep pilot’s licensing current or for maintenance trips. Only five were used for surveying and reconnaissance, while there were five flights transporting administrative officials (including Supervisor Joni Gray on at least one occasion) to different destinations. Sugars said often this saves more time and money in the long run, after commercial flights, hotel costs, and lost work time are added up.

The sheriff also has four helicopters — two Hueys and two smaller aircraft. Sugars said there is a misconception that the department spent a lot of money to get the five aircraft. In fact, he said, most of the costs were covered by grants or gifts, which means the county can’t just go and sell them or break one down to use for parts.

Furthermore, he added, they’re used to drop water on fires and have been used in hundreds of search-and-rescue responses over the years. The Air Support Unit will become a side assignment, much like the SWAT team, called into action when needed. This, according to officials, could slow down search-and-rescue operations.


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