Facing a potential $300,000 increase in the general fund contribution to the Northern Branch Jail operational costs, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors directed the Sheriff’s Office and staff to come up with ways of cutting the cost of overall custody operations.

The proposals are to be brought back during budget workshops in April, when the board will be asked to raise the 2021-22 fiscal year contribution to the Northern Branch Jail operating fund from the initially planned $17.1 million to $17.4 million, depending on what cost savings can be applied.

Although the Northern Branch Jail, a state-of-the-art facility located west of Santa Maria, is expected to go online later this fiscal year, no estimated date was given for its opening.

But back in 2011-12, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan to provide funds for operating the new jail — without creating a sudden major impact on the budget when it opened — by contributing an increasing amount of money each year to a set-aside fund.

At that time, county staff assumed the first full fiscal year of operation would be 2018-19, when the annual cost was estimated at $17.3 million.

“So, the board adopted a plan 10 years ago that had an escalating increase in the set-aside,” said Assistant County Executive Officer Jeff Frapwell. “Then from that set-aside, money is appropriated ... each year to the Sheriff’s Department to pay for that operating cost.

“We know there’s an equilibrium point where the amount of [general fund contribution] going into the plan each year will at some point reach equilibrium with the cost,” Frapwell said.

That equilibrium was expected to come in the 2022-23 fiscal year, when the contribution and the operating cost were estimated to be $19.7 million.

But since the plan was adopted, unanticipated changes — including delays and cost overruns on construction, increases in pension costs and a higher level of contracted medical services — have pushed the anticipated operating cost for the first full fiscal year of 2021-22 to $21.4 million and for the equilibrium fiscal year of 2022-23 to more than $22 million.

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To bring the general fund contribution back closer in line with the initial plan to reach parity in the contribution and cost, the staff is asking the board to adjust the general fund contribution in next fiscal year’s budget.

“So, the minor adjustment we’re suggesting, going from 17.1 to 17.4 [million dollars] still doesn’t reach the total cost of operating the Northern Branch Jail,” Frapwell said. “So we’re not there yet.

“But I think what we’re able to do, and what we hope to do, between now and budget workshop is to work with the sheriff and our outside consultant to identify opportunities for reducing the overall custody cost, thereby reducing the need to grow this contribution in future years, or at least minimize it.”

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said she thinks people are calling for diverting funds into a more restorative justice system to address human needs rather than just a punitive system.

“And whatever we can do to say we strongly endorse that and would like to see that when it comes back at the budget workshops, I’d like to do that,” Hartmann said.

Other budget policies that got the OK from the board in a unanimous vote Tuesday included identifying a funding source when the board reduces or eliminates a proposed service charge while still providing the service.

Other policies included the county executive officer working with the Sheriff’s and Fire departments to develop a funding plan for Air Support Unit maintenance that will smooth out the sometimes fluctuating costs and working more closely with departments on centralizing realignment fund balances.

Another policy will set aside $1.5 million annually for an eventual enterprise resource planning system.