SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Santa Barbara County's new Northern Branch Jail project is gradually taking shape on about 50 acres west of Santa Maria with the anticipated completion date pushed back to Spring 2019.
The new $100 million jail is the largest public works project in Santa Barbara County history and is expected to dramatically enhance public safety countywide.
The Northern Branch Jail has been on the drawing board in Santa Barbara County for decades.
The 376 bed facility includes 32 medical and mental health beds in a specialized housing unit.
It's in response to chronic overcrowding at the existing county jail near Santa Barbara that routinely comes under court order for remediation.
"We had a very rare opportunity which the State of California was offering us 90 percent of construction costs", said Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, "a lot of people said we can't afford a new jail but my counter to that is it's never going to get cheaper and if the State is picking up 90 percent of the costs this is our one opportunity to do what we've been told needs to be done for decades."
The new jail will also provide relief to law enforcement agencies in northern Santa Barbara County including the Santa Maria Police Department.
"Every time we make a trip, and we're talking hundreds of trips to the county jail, that's an officer out of the City of Santa Maria that's not policing the city streets here", said SMPD Chief Phil Hansen about the three hour roundtrip to the current County Jail near Santa Barbara to book those taken into custody.
"Because it is difficult to drive all the way down to Santa Barbara every time, we cite out as many people as possible and there are probably times when they'd be better served going into custody", Chief Hansen said, "but it's very difficult when you have a high call load, you're trying to get out there and answer calls for service and you have someone who is a little bit of wobbler, if we can cite them and get them out of our custody that enhances our ability to get out there and service the public."
The new Northern Branch Jail is seen as much more than convenience and accommodation.
"I know some people, they're worried that we're building a Taj Mahal", Supervisor Lavagnino said, "what we're trying to do is build the safest facility for our Deputy Sheriff's that they can operate in a place where first off, just by nature, its a dangerous place to work, but its incumbent upon us to make it as safe as we possibly can."
Not only is the new jail going to be a game-changer for public safety in Santa Barbara County, it's also an economic stimulus for the northern Santa Barbara County region.
Aside from the hundreds of construction jobs created by the new jail project, Santa Barbara County is looking to hire dozens of new custodial deputies and support staff to operate the facility.
The County anticipated it would cost at least $18 million a year to staff and operate the new jail and has been setting money aside for those costs.
But that was before last month's storm disaster in Montecito and its impact on county property tax revenue.
"More than 90 percent of our funding comes from property tax and Montecito was our golden goose", Lavagnino said, "so we've got to look at the loss of future property tax, the loss of TOT, the bed-tax, fewer people coming and visiting and so its going to be a long haul back for us, it's not something that's going to turn around next month or the month after that."
While Santa Maria Police will benefit from having the new jail right next door, there are concerns about its future operation.
"I'll be interested to see what effects it might have in terms of releases", Chief Hansen said, "because when that facility is opened, they're going to be releasing people out of there, I would assume, that have been taken into custody from all over the county and they are releasing them kind of on our city border, if you will, so that may create some ancillary problems but we'll deal with those as the time gets here."
Once the new jail opens in 2019, Santa Barbara County intends to continue operating the existing jail near Santa Barbara with reduced services and staffing.
Having come this far after so many years, all eyes are on the prize of getting the new Northern Branch Jail built and operational.
"It's not just a Fifth District issue, it's not just a Santa Maria issue, this is a safety issue for the entire county", Lavagnino said, "there's nothing that we can do that would improve the public safety of our entire county than to build this north county jail."