(L) Toni Navarro, director of Santa Barbara County’s Behavioral Wellness Department | Credit: Courtesy County of S.B. (R) Bill Brown | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

If the recently approved $1.41 billion budget is any indication of the county’s priorities, then law enforcement and mental health are top dogs in Santa Barbara County, where the Sheriff’s Office and Behavioral Wellness (BeWell) have accounted for a combined $346 million in allocated funds for the 2022-23 fiscal year.

The departments make up two of the top three on the county’s list of big budget items, with the Sheriff’s Office allocated $182.2 million this year, and $163.9 million earmarked for BeWell; Public Works is the second highest with $166 million.

BeWell’s budget grew by nearly $16 million — from a budget of about $148 million in 2021-22 — in keeping with a statewide trend of increased funding for mental health and recovery programs. These include California’s 2011 Realignment and Mental Health Services Act, with funding for behavioral wellness, and Proposition 63, which improves accessibility of mental health services and treatment.

“Yes, we are absolutely glad about the increased focus on the value of mental health and wellbeing for those in California who are most under-resourced and were most impacted by COVID,” said Toni Navarro, BeWell’s new director, who was hired at the end of 2021. “However, the significant challenge that comes along with more funds to expand our system of care is the severe behavioral health workforce shortage that has ballooned in the past two years.”

Counties all across the state are experiencing a similar shortage, she said, with behavioral health staff reporting vacancy rates anywhere between 25 and 40 percent. Here in Santa Barbara, it is no exception, and Navarro said while the department is “looking forward to providing more and expanded services “ in the county, many positions still need to be filled in order to meet the growing needs of the community.

Despite the worker shortage — and a recent data breach that led to at least 600 personal records being compromised — BeWell has expanded its services and exceeded many of the goals set for 2021-2022. One of those initiatives offered 5,000 subscriptions to meditation app Headspace, which were distributed free of charge to those in need.

“Headspace got so much response,” said BeWell spokesperson Suzanne Grimmesey. “Such a powerful tool we have that we can offer.”

Another recent success has been the collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department and other emergency services with the “co-response” teams. The teams were able to handle a total of 43 percent of more than 5,000 mental-health crisis calls last year, and 72 percent of crisis calls during operating hours. In response, the county is hoping to expand the co-response service hours from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.

The co-response effort is part of a larger push to switch from strictly law enforcement to a collaborative effort to help deescalate incidents that can be handled without arrests or citations. It also comes along with a push to reduce spending and expand oversight for law enforcement.

But Santa Barbara County’s budget, along with many local governments across the country, has moved in the opposite direction. When Sheriff Bill Brown first took over in 2007, the entire departmental budget was a modest $80 million. Now, with Brown reelected to his fifth term as Santa Barbara County Sheriff, the cost of custodial operations alone has surpassed $80 million. Custody operations is now the biggest portion of the department’s total budget, with law enforcement operations at $77 million, and administrative costs at $16 million.

And while Brown has spearheaded the fight against a growing fentanyl epidemic with Project Opioid, and opened the long-awaited Northern Branch Jail in Santa Maria, several other aspects of the department have failed to meet its stated goals.

The Sheriff’s Office has gone $6 million over budget on overtime pay, as staff shortages have forced the remaining deputies to take on extra shifts, and custody staff is now split between two operating facilities. 

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The jails have also struggled with COVID-19 outbreaks. Last year, an outbreak between both the Main Jail and newly opened Northern Branch reached more than 278 individuals before all the cases were cleared, and a new outbreak has reportedly found at least 51 cases as of last week. A staff that is overworked and stretched thin also may have contributed to the department’s struggle to enforce public health mandates in 2021, where at least 108 unvaccinated patrol deputies refused to submit to weekly tests.

The department most recently failed to meet its goal of having at least 30 percent of law enforcement deputies — and 85 percent of custody deputies — attend at least one advanced Crisis Intervention Training course. So far, 10.5 percent of 286 patrol deputies have attended, and none of the county’s 271 custody deputies have attended any training. 

Some of the struggles can be explained by the lack of staff, and others by the pandemic, which forced an overhaul of law enforcement, jail, and court procedures for nearly two years. In turn, many programs were put on hold.

Now, with things opening up and a new $182.2 million operating budget, the Sheriff’s Office is looking to catch up on a few things that got lost in the shuffle. According to budget documents, the county has plans to begin a remodel on the Main Jail — which has fallen into disrepair with several units unusable — and outfit all patrol deputies with body cams. Additional plans include working with the Community Corrections Partnership to hire for the new position of “Discharge Planning Coordinator” to rethink how to handle the jail population.

Overall the county’s $1.41 budget is $60 million more than the previous year, and was unanimously adopted by the County Board of Supervisors on June 14. Details and a full budget breakdown can be found on the county website.

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