The first day of budget workshops Monday went smoothly for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, winding up midafternoon with a presentation from the Fire Department’s new chief.
“That wraps up Day One,” said Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. “Three o’clock. I think that’s got to be a record.”
That’s likely because most of the presentations, which included Behavioral Wellness, Public Health, Social Services, Child Support Services and First 5, generated little controversy and, overall, board support.
Ordinance amendments to regulate agricultural hoop structures were approved Tuesday by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors after splitting the difference on a change for one requirement and deleting some text from another. The result is hoop houses will be exempt from permit requirements provided they are 20 feet or less in height, have no lighting, plumbing or other permanent elements, are located on land cultivated in one of the last three years and are on slopes averaging 25% or less.
But the staff warned supervisors that Wednesday’s workshop will be a long one, as the board will hear from the Sheriff’s, Public Defender and District Attorney’s offices, Court Special Services and the departments of Probation, Community Services, Planning and Development and Agriculture, Weights and Measures.
First District Supervisor Das Williams was absent from Monday’s workshop and 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam participated via video conferencing from the Joseph Centeno Betteravia Government Center in Santa Maria.
One of the longest presentations that drew some of the most public comments and board discussion came from Alice Gleghorn, director of the Behavioral Wellness Department, which the board and most of the 21 public speakers praised for improvements to the system and reined-in costs.
“You know, I don’t hand out accolades very often,” said Andy Caldwell, of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. “Dr. Gleghorn, we’re duly impressed. You have succeeded in stopping the department from hemorrhaging.
“We saw bills of 10, 20, 30 million dollars coming out of this department at one time,” he continued. “It was completely out of control. Completely.
“So she did, in our opinion, the impossible,” Caldwell said, possibly referring to the quote Cleghorn added to the end of her presentation, as most of the department heads do.
“Impossible just takes a little longer,” she said.
But her presentation also drew questions from one supervisor about how to determine the effectiveness of individual programs.
“I think we need better evaluation of how we’re actually doing on a person-to-person basis so we can make sure we’re allocating (funds), which are finite, to the best purpose,” said 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam.
A number of the public speakers related personal stories of how the department’s programs had helped them or loved ones, and there were pleas to again provide funding to Growing Grounds Farm in Santa Maria, a Transitions-Mental Health Association program that provides horticultural therapy, vocational training and employment to individuals with mental illness.
“I search long and hard for programs that work. It’s obvious that we have one that does work,” Lavagnino said of Growing Grounds.
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said she has seen the results from the Growing Grounds program and agreed it should be supported.
“I would love to see Growing Grounds supported, but I don’t know where to take the money from,” Adam said.
Jeff Frapwell, assistant county executive officer in charge of budget and research, said the staff will work with the Behavioral Wellness Department to come up with a funding mechanism before budget hearings in June.
At the end of Monday’s workshop, following a five-minute break, new Fire Chief Mark Hartwig faced his first budget questions since assuming command of the County Fire Department.
Cannabis cultivation would be banned on certain parcels zoned AG-1 under one possible ordinance amendment but would be allowed on those parcels with a conditional use permit under another possible amendment proposed Wednesday by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission.
“If you think it’s been easy, watching all these folks just fly through, that’s why we took a break,” Lavagnino jokingly told Hartwig. “We were in the back coming up with all our complicated questions for you. So, welcome.”
Hartwig ran through the challenges and emerging issues the Fire District is dealing with, including evaluating the emergency medical services system with the Public Health Department, recruiting and retaining qualified personnel and improving equipment and technology.
“Right now, we’re in the process of updating the document that, really, we make all our decisions off of — our Fire Services Deployment and Departmental Performance Audit through Citygate,” he said.
Capital projects the department will focus on include replacing the 1952 Fire Station 41 in Cuyama that is now inadequate at a cost of $4 million; developing a fire emergency communications dispatch center, with $2 million allocated this year and $2.6 million needed in the next two years; and remodeling a 1954 bungalow currently used for administrative offices in Buellton to repurpose it as an operations battalion chief’s quarters and offices at a cost of $500,000.
Hartwig pointed out this is the year the department will receive the full 17% of property tax the board shifted from the General Fund, which he said will lead to a sustainable Fire District in the future.
Lavagnino said since this is the year “where we hit the number,” it would be nice to go back to the Citygate report to see what needs were identified, what the district is prepared to do and how they would match up with funding.
Adam questioned one of the department’s performance measures that changed the number of target days for reviewing and responding to fire protection certificate applications from 20 days to 30 days and plan checks from 10 days to 20 days.
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“Is that just a recognition that we were failing miserably at our previous target, or is that something that we’re trying to slow down our process, or why are we giving ourselves an extra 10 days instead of kicking up our effort?” he asked.
Hartwig agreed it was originally higher on the performance measure.
“Of course, I think being realistic is my aim,” he said. “And knowing that if we have a standard or we’ve set a goal for ourselves that’s unrealistic, both in the amount of time it takes to turn it over and the … amount of those that we will complete, I would rather adjust those and be more realistic.”
He said the department has seen some improvement from last fiscal year, and he expects with changes to the process, the department will pick up another 20% this year.
But Adam said he didn’t like the idea of changing the standard.
“I’m all for setting attainable goals — I get that — but there’s probably some reason that we’re not making it in 20 business days, and maybe we should, instead of giving ourselves an extra 10 days, figure out why that is,” he said.
“Hopefully, this is kind of a probationary move and that we’ll be revisiting this in future years and make sure we can do what we can for our business community to make sure we turn around plan checks in a timely fashion.”