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Santa Barbara County begins budget workshops with public safety departments
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Santa Barbara County begins budget workshops with public safety departments

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No reductions in services are included in preliminary budgets submitted by the Sheriff’s, District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices and the Probation and Fire departments April 12 as Santa Barbara County kicked off budget workshops.

But all except the Fire Department are seeking expansions in either staff, equipment or both.

Most, but not all, of the expansion requests centered on information technology capabilities and adding the people necessary to manage those systems as well as analyze the data they produce.

Some of that has been driven by the changes in operations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the public demand for more transparency, legislative mandates and department desire to better understand their own systems and the people they deal with are also pushing the need to expand electronic data gathering and sharing.

Public Defender Tracy Macuga told the Board of Supervisors the data storage capacity of her office’s 64-terabyte server, which was put into service with an expected lifetime of 10 years, was exhausted within three years.

Macuga’s passionate presentation to the board also touched on other issues she hopes to see addressed by her department and others.

Some of those were raised or put into the spotlight by the pandemic.

“Individuals in the North County face harsher sentences and longer probations than those in the South County,” she said, noting it’s also difficult to help North County clients obtain the appropriate services to avoid recidivism and help them become productive members of society.

“The North [County] is a desert of resources,” Macuga said.

Her preliminary budget includes $382,200 for four full-time positions — adding one for IT and one for accounting and turning two misdemeanor attorney extra-help positions into full-time jobs.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her office is facing similar data storage problems, telling supervisors the volume of electronically transmitted discovery information has increased greatly, and if her office’s system isn’t replaced by April 2022, it’s facing “serious server failure.”

But she also cited other challenges her office is facing, including a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, legislative requirements to review and retry cases, resources strained by large, complex cases like Operation Matador, which will involve two trials, the need for a new case management system and implementing the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System.

“We can’t let abused children fall through the cracks, and that is exactly where they’ve been falling,” Dudley said.

She’s seeking just over $1 million to add 5.5 full-time employees and upgrade the digital data storage system.

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann asked Dudley to develop flow charts to help the public understand the complexity of diverting offenders into various programs other than incarceration.

“Shining a light always makes things better,” Dudley said.

The Fire Department is not seeking any funds for expansion, but its capital improvement projects include construction of the Cuyama Fire Station and a regional fire communication facility.

Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said the department also plans to replace a bulldozer acquired in 1985 and to add a belly tank to the Firehawk helicopter, resulting in the county having $7 million invested in a $21 million machine.

Responding to a board question, Hartwig said the Firehawk will not be a revenue source through its loan to other jurisdictions, adding state and federal reimbursement for its use “will never cover the cost of operating that huge machine.”

Hartwig said the Firehawk will be kept here for use in the county or just across its borders in San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, but having it might allow the county to send its medium firefighting aircraft to assist other areas.

Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman said while her department is not reducing services, it has lost 19 people due to a decreased number of offenders being housed and a loss in funding.

But the Probation Department preliminary budget includes $384,900 to add three employees, including two to enhance the pretrial supervision program.

Heitman said that, at any given time, the department is supervising an average of 300 individuals, but it is only staffed at a level to supervise 200.

The budget also asks for $212,000 to make structural improvements and add equipment that will be needed to house juveniles being transferred from state to county facilities.

Sheriff Bill Brown said the pandemic had a heavy impact on the Sheriff’s Office, resulting in an increase in overtime for the patrol division as deputies had to cover for others who were down with COVID-19.

He said his office is still dealing with a structural staffing deficit extending back to the Great Recession, needs to develop a data unit and will need to renovate, restructure and repurpose portions of the Main Jail after the Northern Branch Jail goes into service, now expected to be near the end of summer or beginning of fall.

Expansion requests for the Sheriff’s Office total $480,000 in one-time costs and more than $1.7 million in ongoing costs for eight employees, six of which would form another cannabis compliance team to meet the growing demand for investigations.

In 2020 alone, the current team was unable to take enforcement against 21 suspected illegal cannabis cultivations and dozens of illegal delivery services.

That inability is potentially leading to a major loss of cannabis tax revenues.

Brown said the department also plans to add 135 body-worn cameras, and one employee would support the operation of that system.

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