During the first of three budget hearings, several county departments discussed steep cuts they’d have to make to help the Board of Supervisors plug a $44.3 million budget gap. But it was the Sheriff’s Department that laid out the most woeful scenario.

Hanging in the balance are deputy positions, the department’s Community Services Bureau, and most controversially, the Santa Maria jail – which handles about 4,000 booked inmates each year. “It’s painfully obvious that we cannot continue to do what we’re doing,” Sheriff Bill Brown told the board June 7. “I feel as though I have been presiding over the systematic dismantling of the Sheriff’s Department.”

The all-day hearing included presentations from the county’s public safety departments. Although most department leaders appeared optimistic despite the difficult cuts they were facing, not everyone was as positive, especially some public speakers. “You’re a deer in the headlights right now,” fumed Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business of Santa Barbara County. “This budget book is not worth the paper it’s written on, because the state of California is going to change most of your underlying assumptions.”

He suggested that the board “rubber stamp” county staff’s recommendation and reconvene the budget hearings once the county has a clearer picture of what the state’s adopted budget looks like.

Brown acknowledged that though the budget will be balanced on paper, the supervisor’s budget choices may be hamstrung in part by looming cuts from the state. California, along with other states, is depending on a slice of the $24 billion pie that the federal government is offering to help states curb drastic cuts to services, including police and schools.

The measure to provide these funds to states, however, has been sidetracked because of opposition from Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats. About $8 billion or 35 percent of the Governor’s budget relies on increased federal funding, but if these funds don’t materialize, Schwarzenegger proposes a “triggering” of revenue increases and program reductions of nearly $7 billion, including the near elimination of health and human service programs provided by counties, such as CalWORKS and In-Home Supportive Services.

Some good news came to the board earlier in the meeting, when county officials announced that they had brokered a compromise with the county’s Firefighters Local 2046 to defer previously approved wage increases – a move that will save the county $2.1 million over a three-year period.

“Our county firefighters have agreed to step up and help the county, just like our other labor organizations have done,” said 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf. “I want to thank our firefighters and all of our employees for recognizing the difficult financial situation and for their willingness to help.”

Although concessions saved County Fire from further workforce cuts, the department still had to slash 6.5 full-time equivalent employees. The department’s projected $6.2 budget shortfall has strained the department that saw a 95 percent increase in emergency responses in the past two decades, and has had fewer safety positions this past year than it did two decades ago. “We’re being stretched thin, very thin,” cautioned Fire Chief Mike Dyer, adding that his department has become more reactive and less proactive.

Dyer has had to use funds reserved for maintaining safe fire stations and operation buildings to help balance his budget, leaving a meager $1.8 million when there is $76 million worth of repairs needed.

Because most of the department’s funding comes from property tax revenue – which has been stagnant for years – Dyer urged the board to consider all tax-based funding options, a countywide fire safety sales tax, and a Fire District-wide parcel tax.

The wage concessions were the latest in a series of newly negotiated compromises with the county’s labor organizations. The Sheriff’s Managers and the Deputy Sheriffs associations also agreed to postpone wage increases, which will save the county a total of about $4.8 over the next four years.

County officials also ironed out similar agreements with the Service Employees International Union Local 620, the Engineers and Technicians Association, and the Union of American Physicians and Dentists — which will help save an additional $9.64 million.

Although the Board of Supervisors had banked on labor concessions to chip away at its budget deficit, they still have to slash millions from county departments for the coming fiscal year. Under CEO Mike Brown’s budget proposal, Santa Barbara County could lose 170.5 full-time equivalent positions. Staffing cuts proposed include 27.5 positions in the Sheriff’s Department, 6.5 positions in the Fire Department, 4 personnel in the District Attorney’s Office, 3.5 positions in Probation and 5 positions in Public Works.

Brown emphasized that the proposed staff cuts would save the county $15 million. Other one-time cost-cutting measures would slim down the deficit by another $27 million. County supervisors have not ruled out tapping the county’s strategic reserves – funds that may not be there to help shore up future deficits.

Brown, who gave an overview of the budget at Monday’s hearing, noted that amid slumping sales and property tax revenue and skyrocketing employee salary and pension costs, the board has cut positions, encouraged early retirement and left several vacated positions unfilled.

The county’s pension contribution has steadily increased, from $37.6 million in 2003-04 to nearly $90 million in 2010-11, and it is expected to rise in the coming years to cover investment losses in 2008.

Following Brown’s presentation, leaders of several county public safety departments outlined the proposed cuts they could absorb. Although many were confident their departments could press ahead with the cuts, they warned that they’d be carrying heavier workloads to make up for staff reductions.

Sheriff Brown lamented the reductions his department has endured during the last three years, which saw 57 positions unfunded – 39 of them sworn deputies.

“These are cuts that have been unprecedented in the history of the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “Department staffing for 2010 is the lowest it has been in a decade.”

“When we began this process, there was no more low-hanging fruit on the tree,” he added. “Now we’re cutting branches and limbs off the tree. It’s quite discouraging, quite frankly.”

He said the proposal to close the 43-bed Santa Maria branch of the Santa Barbara County Jail would allow the department to avoid trimming law enforcement resources to its investigative units, cutting front-line officers in the unincorporated area of the county and closing large portions of the main jail in Santa Barbara. The jail, which has been at risk of closure for two months, employs 17 full-time staff members, 13 of whom are deputies. Fifth District Supervisor Joseph Centeno said he would not vote in favor of shuttering the jail. “We’re talking about the destruction of our law enforcement personnel and his operation,” he said. Others expressed their shared dismay that such a proposal was being considered, and exhorted the board to find ways to keep the jail open.

“Public safety is what people want from government, expect from government, and if we begin cutting back on law enforcement, everything else begins to deteriorate,” said former 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone.

“This is not merely a budget issue, it’s a public safety issue,” said Lt. Jerel Haley of the Santa Maria Police Department. “Closing the facility will take police officers off our streets, and create an environment in which criminals will thrive and prey on our residents.”

He noted that last year, the Santa Maria Police Department booked 3,665 people into the north county jail – an average of 10 people a day.

Officers will be forced to travel 140 miles round-trip, he noted, and have less time to respond to emergency calls. “You multiply that by 10 times a day, what the county will have done is the equivalent of taking four full-time police officers off of our streets,” he said. “Additional options must be explored before taking this drastic measure.”

Lt. Matt Olsen, commander of the California Highway Patrol’s Santa Maria Station, echoed Haley’s concern. He pointed out that the CHP doesn’t have its own detention facilities and must rely on county jails.

Although Brown admonished the board to keep the jail open, he suggested alternatives to a closure: staff the jail at night with five deputies, when most arrestees are booked, for $557,000; staff the jail Friday through Saturday, for $334,000; or enlisting a “paddy wagon” of agencies that would restore one deputy position to the jail.