It was still early in the discussion at Monday’s budget-fest when Supervisor Salud Carbajal said, “For me, this hearing is not going well.” He also happened to be speaking for all of his colleagues, and Sheriff Bill Brown, whose request for more money coupled with a confusion-filled portrait of plans for the North County Jail, progressively ticked off the board for several hours.
While preliminary budgets presented by several other departments garnered neither much fanfare nor many questions — next year’s numbers will be finalized in June — the sheriff’s presentation was a different story. Miscalculating how much extra money he would be requesting for his department’s $125 million budget — an initial document said $4.7 million more when the figure was really $5.5 million — was the first straw. Asking for the extra cash when his department is already $2.2 million in the hole, mostly for overtime costs, didn’t make things any better.
The second straw came when the supervisors and county staff were trying to figure out the discrepancy, and Brown said it was “almost impossible” for his department to provide exact figures. Moving on — after being urged by Supervisor Peter Adam to make “a better presentation” — Brown piled on the third straw with his suggestion that he would seek state funds to repurpose parts of the Main Jail once the North County Jail opens in 2018.
Borrowing a phrase used by Supervisor Janet Wolf minutes earlier, Supervisor Steve Lavagnino called the Main Jail’s future “the elephant in the room” and suggested “mothballing” the building once the North County facility opens. But Brown put a quick kibosh on that idea, which didn’t sit well with the supervisors. “I don’t want you to think that once we build this new jail, that becomes the one and only jail,” Sheriff Brown said. “That’s not going to be the case.”
Underscoring much of the conversation was Proposition 47, the state law approved by voters in November that demoted many felonies to misdemeanors and, as a result, significantly reduced jail populations. Brown, who campaigned against Prop. 47 on the theory that it would increase crime by putting more criminals on the street and removing their incentive to stop offending, has cautioned the supervisors against placing too much hope on the measure’s effects on our county jail, insisting that the jail’s population will continue to fluctuate.
At a recent meeting assessing the initiative’s impact in Santa Barbara County, the sheriff noted that since Prop. 47 passed, drug-related bookings at County Jail have fallen 50 percent. The number of people locked up here has dropped to levels last seen before the state enacted realignment, which shifted the responsibility of many prisoners from the state to the counties, in 2011. That year, the jail housed an average of 899 offenders. In 2012, the number jumped to 981, and then 1,002 the next year. Last year, the average dropped to 967. And the first three months of 2015 have brought even lower figures: 798 in January, 854 in February, and 842 in March.
The reductions attracted the supervisors’ attention and caused the sheriff to reduce his projected bed count for the entire jail system when the new facility opens. He had previously estimated a need for 1,200 total beds, split evenly between the Main Jail on Calle Real and the new complex outside Santa Maria. But at Monday’s meeting, he said 900 beds would be a better estimate, with 300 housed in South County and 600 housed in North County.
Fewer beds, however, likely won’t mean fewer dollars to operate the facilities. Brown succeeded in scoring $120 million in construction funds for the North County Jail composed of a 376-bed main portion and a 228-bed treatment-focused wing. But hanging over the county, and underlying most of the supervisors’ comments on Monday, has been how to cover the operating costs.
At the existing jail, the cost to lock up 900 inmates and pay its 221-member staff is $41.3 million per year. With the new jail combined with the existing jail, housing those same 900 inmates will require 330 staff and $58.7 million. Since 2011-2012, the county’s finance gurus have been setting aside increases in property-tax revenue, building up to have enough to make up that $17.3 million difference. (The 228-bed wing won’t open until 2019.) The cost of the inmate-to-staffing ratio will “dramatically” increase at the Main Jail once the new complex opens, county staff said Monday.
If the proverbial camel’s back was already bent as Monday’s hearing continued, it broke when Sheriff Brown asked for funding for a full-time lieutenant to man the department’s aviation unit — a position that supervisors Wolf and Lavagnino said the sheriff had already assured them had been filled. (The aviation unit also recently attracted the board’s ire for roundabout donations made by the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation to the nonprofit that supports the unit.) “When I saw this, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Wolf said to Brown. “It’s numbers that aren’t jiving. Don’t wordsmith,” she continued, “just tell it to us straight so we know what we’re dealing with.”
Lavagnino was tweaked to the point of alluding to a full hold on the North County Jail plans. “I’ve probably been the biggest supporter of the North County Jail. [But] I’m not actually prepared to move any further on any of it until we get hard-and-fast numbers,” he said. “We have to trust what you’re telling us. I can’t go from one meeting and come into the next meeting and have two different stories.”
Brown tried to share in Wolf and Lavagnino’s concerns. “I think the reality is we’re all frustrated,” he said, prompting Wolf to point to reduced inmate populations and questions over the need for more jail space. “One thing that’s so interesting is that the number of inmates in our jail is down. We should be celebrating that,” she said. Interrupting Wolf, Brown said, “We’re certainly pleased that the numbers are down. We’re not certain they’re going to stay down.” Throughout Monday’s meeting, the supervisors and sheriff frequently spoke over each other, at one point pushing Supervisor Adam to say, “Dude, I really wish you wouldn’t talk over me.”
How the supervisors feel about the jail project will again be on display at their April 21 meeting, when they’ll discuss the project’s bidding process. County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni said the county could completely pull the plug after going out for bids but only before a contract is awarded. The Sheriff’s Office will also come back with more figures at that April meeting. Brown’s right-hand man, Undersheriff Barney Melekian, said the department will “do a better job” at making its case.
In making her remarks to the Sheriff, Doreen Farr echoed her colleagues’ calls for a more detailed plan, noting in particular the salary costs. “I’m very uncomfortable,” she said. “We’re asked to make firm commitments now. Once we commit, we’ve committed.”