Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, citing new poll findings, urged the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to approve a ballot measure for the Nov. 2 election so that voters can decide whether to raise their sales taxes to help bankroll a new jail.

After a nearly three-hour meeting, supervisors voted to table the proposal after concerns were raised over Brown’s proposed ordinance language.

Brown, who was elected to a second term on June 8, has been scrambling to drum up support for a proposed half-cent sales tax that he called the “last resort” in a decades-long effort to build a new 304-bed jail in the North County.

The sheriff’s proposal has come to the forefront of the county’s problems as overcrowding has become a bigger issue, which he hopes will heighten pressure on the supervisors to take quick action on the long-stalled plan.

While industry standards promote an 85-percent jail occupancy rate to handle surges in arrests, the current jail has been operating at 120 percent of its maximum capacity.

The tax increase would bring nearly $30 million a year, about half of which would go to the construction and maintenance of the new facility. The rest would go toward programs that reduce recidivism, and other funds would be split between front-line law enforcement and county fire department.

Although the board is expected to vote on the proposed ballot measure July 6, it has until July 13 to place the tax on the ballot. Brown told the board the time for a ballot measure is now, citing a January 2009 poll that showed 54 percent of voters saying they would vote for a half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for a new jail, which would be located at Black and Betteravia roads near Santa Maria.

During the past few years, the Sheriff’s Department has warned the board that the county stands to lose $56 million in state funding it secured to cover about 70 percent of the jail’s estimated $80 million price tag. These funds are contingent on the county footing the rest of the bill, but budget deficits have ruled out the possibility.

Brown’s proposal comes in the wake of the near closure of the Santa Maria booking jail because of the budget deficit, and after a slew of grand jury reports that urged the county to find monies to construct the facility to help curb chronic overcrowding at the main jail.

Although not committing themselves to his proposal, board members said the idea of a ballot measure in the coming months has great appeal.

However, all the supervisors expressed reservations too, particularly over how much money would be given to the fire department. Others, especially 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, wanted more money go to the fire department.

An alternative proposal presented by Brown would set aside $2 million annually – instead of the $1.5 million – for county fire out of the $7.5 million in tax revenue generated from the tax.

Carbajal, along with supervisors Janet Wolf and Doreen Farr, pressed for $3 million to help shore up the county department that is anticipating severe future budget deficits in the tens of millions of dollars because of slumping property tax revenue.

“I ask you to work harder,” Carbajal told Brown. “Work with county fire to come up with $3 million per year.”

Brown vowed to do what he could, but said it was unlikely that it would be possible to give that amount to the county fire department. “It doesn’t have something in it for everybody, but the clock is ticking.”

Some supervisors also questioned whether the proposed 10-year life of the tax would be long enough to support the jail after its startup years, and they argued that the tax should continue for 15 or 20 years.

Second District Supervisor Wolf broached a similar ballot in 2000, Measure U2000, which won only 38.9 percent of the vote.

“Quite candidly, there’s never going to be a good time for this (ballot measure),” Brown said, adding that to garner the required 67 percent of the vote to pass the ballot measure, the county must wage a massive educational campaign.

A less challenging concern, but perhaps significant, is the measure’s proposed title, “Jail Construction, Operation & Public Safety Enhancements Ballot Measure.” The long-winded name prompted one speaker to comment that it wasn’t “sexy.”

Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno said with that title, “You’ll be dead before you start.”

He stressed that if the measure does not move forward, then the next chance to get the money would be in 2012.

The 2000 ballot measure was shot down during relatively good economic times, he added. With the jail in limbo because of budget deficits, county voters, he reasoned, may be more inclined to approve the only realistic means of funding a new jail.

He also noted that a 1 percent state sales tax is set to sunset at the same time the proposed sales tax would kick in, meaning county residents would feel less of a financial pinch.

“It’s tough times for all of us,” Brown said. “We need to get creative, we need to get bold, we need to be very forthright with the voters and get their help with this.”

jfoster@syvjournal.com