<b>TO THE BRIM:</b> Citing new state incarceration laws and overcrowded conditions at the County Jail, Sheriff Bill Brown continues to lobby the supervisors for money to build a North County facility.
Paul Wellman (file)

The Sheriff’s Department is investigating 27 inmates in a Santa Barbara County Jail housing unit where a fire broke out Sunday afternoon. The group of inmates was uncooperative with evacuation orders at the time, according to Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover. After a complete lockdown, the rest of the jail was back to normal operation by Monday.

Custody deputies were alerted to the blaze at around 3:50 p.m., and they found a large trash can on fire. The can had “been filled with items available to inmates including bedding, clothing, and other paper materials,” Hoover said in a statement. The fire was quickly put out, but smoke had already filled the area and forced custody staff to evacuate inmates to other parts of the jail.

But a group of inmates ​— ​some of whom are suspected of starting the fire ​— ​barricaded themselves in their cells, Hoover said, and didn’t respond to evacuation commands. As the fire rekindled and responding County Fire personnel worked to put it out, inmates allegedly yelled and threw things at the emergency crews.

A Special Operations Response Team was called in to help, Hoover said, and had to “deploy chemical agents to gain compliance from the barricaded inmates.” While they were being evacuated, two separate fights between inmates broke out, resulting in minor injuries. One inmate was taken to the hospital for a head-injury evaluation, while all inmates affected by the smoke or chemical agents were evaluated by jail staff.

This is at least the second significant incident to occur at the jail since the start of the year. On January 4, a disturbance in the exercise yard of the main jail led to a weekend-long lockdown of the facility. One inmate was taken to the hospital for a non-life-threatening injury, and five more were treated by jail staff. Charges in that case were filed against several inmates.

From 2008-2012, there were 747 reports involving assaults on inmates at the main County Jail. Over that same period of time, there has been an average of 12 assaults on peace officers a year. Officials haven’t explained what they think is behind the recent behavior, but the overcrowded conditions have been an issue for decades. Recent state realignment has put even more pressure on Sheriff Bill Brown’s resources as he tries to get a new jail built in the North County.

“We’ve had an additional strain placed on us as a result of realignment,” Brown said Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors. Realignment was one of three “Rs” ​— ​the others were revenue and reassessment ​— ​he outlined in a presentation about his efforts. Brown said the county has to reassess how it will pay to operate a new 376-bed North County Jail, which is slated to open in 2017 and expected to cost $17 million a year.

Brown said the plan he’s formulated with CEO Chandra Wallar is “very disciplined” and achievable. Right now, the complicated scheme calls for contributions from the county’s General Fund with slight increases every year and building up until the county has enough stored away when expenses begin in 2016. The county can then draw down from that amount, and by that time the operational expenses will be fully built into the Sheriff Department’s budget.

And despite getting most of the upcoming construction paid for with state funds, there remains $9.7 million in capital matching costs the county must pay. There are several options for raising the funds, including taking the money from the county’s General Fund or issuing bonds. The board doesn’t have to figure it all out quite yet, but the supervisors will have to start seriously examining where all that money will come from. In the meantime, they’ve scheduled a workshop for September.

At that time, the board will also go back to talking about potential revenue generators. Back on the table, apparently, is the idea of putting a measure on an upcoming ballot that would raise the rate of the transient occupancy tax rate, a bed tax charged to hotels throughout the county. The rate for hotels in unincorporated parts of the county is 10 percent, below the 12 percent most cities in the county charge. Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who last year voted against putting a bed tax increase on the ballot ​— ​citing, among things, voter fatigue and the need for more exploration into the idea ​— ​even said the proposal should come back to the board as part of a revenue discussion.


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