A ‘Frickin’ Dogfight’ Breaks Out at Santa Barbara County Budget Hearing

DA and Public Defender Go Toe-to-Toe; Sheriff Butts Heads with Critics

District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Sheriff Bill Brown, and Public Defender Tracy Macuga | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

A mostly typical Santa Barbara County budget hearing quickly erupted Tuesday when the board was presented with reports from public safety departments.

Following a contentious debate between some of the supervisors and Sheriff Bill Brown last week over reducing the jail population and deputy overtime costs, Brown addressed his critics head on. At public comment right before his talk, a dozen or so members of the public called for a reduction of the Sheriff’s Office budget by $26.7 million because they said comparable Sheriff’s departments in the state operate at that level.

“Given that poverty and trauma are the two largest influences on criminal behavior, and that incarceration for any amount of time is traumatic and disruptive to individuals and their family members… We urge you to reduce the Sheriff’s office funding,” said Nadia Abushanab with SBCAN. 

Those who were calling for the budget reduction wanted to see the money reinvested in diversion programs. Brown said they were wrong.

His budget is not bloated, he said, and in fact it’s inadequate in many areas, particularly in custody operations. He also said the “good deeds and programs” that have been developed by the Sheriff’s Office often go ignored by critics. 

He also added that his department oversees several cities that other Sheriff’s departments don’t, so that’s why his budget is larger.

Brown went on to say how the increase in crime will lead to a higher inmate population — although it’s at a historic low — and how he expects the jail population to go up. One of the sheriff’s main goals for this fiscal year is to begin the Main Jail remodel. 

But the tension didn’t end with the Sheriff’s Office. District Attorney Joyce Dudley and Public Defender Tracy Macuga had a faceoff of their own.

Dudley requested the board give her department $259,100 in ongoing revenue to fund a two-person unit that would review closed cases of incarcerated people who may be eligible for early release. The board ultimately denied it, but not until after Macuga fought to stop Dudley from receiving the funding.

Macuga already does this work and has funded it with a grant. She made it clear that she does not see the Public Defender’s Office sharing the work of going through the closed cases with the District Attorney’s Office. 

“This is like when you receive a grant to level the playing field, and then the playing field is unleveled again because funding is put to oppose the work that we’re doing,” Macuga said.

“I’m just kind of shocked,” Dudley said in response. “I don’t understand this. This is the funding we need to look carefully at getting the people released from custody.”

Though Dudley did not get her funding, Macuga was granted her request for $151,600 in ongoing funding to convert two extra help positions into permanent employee positions to help with the department’s caseload.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino called the exchange a “frickin’ dogfight.” 

BUDGET OVERVIEW

Outside of public safety, the rest of the budget hearing went smoothly. For a county that is emerging from a pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, Santa Barbara County is swimming in excess funds this year.

The recommended operating budget is balanced at $1.35 billion, an increase of $160.5 million from this year’s budget. It supports a workforce of 4,347 employees. The county’s property tax and sales tax revenues remained stable, cannabis revenue continues to grow, and substantial state and federal relief funding has kept the county afloat through the pandemic.

“Looking forward from fiscal year 2021-2022 we are going to see the county shifting from response mode to recovery,” said Nancy Anderson, county assistant CEO. 

The county received $43.3 million in one-time federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, $18.2 million of which will be used towards one-time community service needs such as  a homeless facility and a creek bridge at Tucker’s Grove Park. 

The budget also includes $19 million in cannabis tax revenue, an increase of $10.6 million from the current year adopted budget. It will be used for various expenditures, including $2 million towards preserving the San Marcos foothills and local matching funding of $100,000 for coastal conservancy grants.

Other highlights from the budget include $19.9 million for maintenance funding, $14 million in rental assistance programs, More than $1.5 million to “enhance data analysis and technology tools among the criminal justice departments” to improve transparency, and more than $12 million for homeless services.


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