Solvang reluctantly approves new contract with the county sheriff

Without police departments of their own, four cities along the Central Coast depend on the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services.

The current contracts between Solvang, Buellton, Goleta, and Carpinteria and the Sheriff’s Office expire on Sept. 29, leading each city to consider new terms laid out by the county before entering into their separate but similar agreements.

click to enlarge Solvang reluctantly approves new contract with the county sheriff
File photo by Jayson Mellom
WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN: Members of the Solvang City Council recently discussed the city’s negotiations with Santa Barbara County to continue relying on the County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services.

During the Solvang City Council’s Sept. 25 meeting, Solvang City Attorney Dave Fleishman said that discussions about the 2023-27 contract between the four contract cities and the Sheriff’s Office have been ongoing since November 2022.

The purpose of drafting a multi-year contract rather than a one- or two-year agreement was to set clear costs for each city to budget for in advance, Fleishman explained.

However, a recent provision added to the contract “nearly at the last moment—in mid-September,” Fleishman said, states that the cost of any mid-contract salary increases for the Sheriff’s Office will be passed onto the contract cities.

As of the Solvang City Council’s Sept. 25 meeting, the county hadn’t provided Solvang with information related to what the potential fiscal impact to the city could be in the event of a mid-contract salary increase, according to Solvang’s staff report.

“Now the whole point of having this certainty that we were looking for has a potential out,” said Fleishman, who described the late addition as “a sucker punch to the gut.”

But Fleishman still recommended that the City Council approve the contract and added that Solvang always has the option to terminate the contract on one year’s notice without affecting the other three contract cities, as each contract is separate.

“I would say it’s better to have a contract where there’s a little bit of uncertainty than having no contract at all,” said Fleishman, who reminded the City Council that the city’s current 2022-23 agreement with the Sheriff’s Office will expire before the end of September.

“It’s uncertain to what level of response the sheriff’s department would provide in the absence of a contract,” Fleishman said. “But they seem to be taking the position that they’re under no legal obligation to do it.”

Councilmember Claudia Orona called the contract “a scam,” but reluctantly agreed with staff’s recommendation to approve it.

“We don’t have much of a choice,” Claudia Orona said. “We cannot gamble with public safety, so we have to approve the contract.”

Aside from being dissatisfied with the provision on mid-contract salary increases, members of the City Council and staff also expressed concern over the base amount Solvang would pay during the 2023-24 fiscal year: about $2.8 million.

During the 2022-23 fiscal year, Solvang’s contract with the Sheriff’s Office was priced at about $2.3 million. Councilmember Elizabeth Orona described the new contract as full of “escalating costs without any changes in the services received.”

“I can’t say with enough emphasis how frustrating it is to be confronted with the need to approve this agreement right now,” Elizabeth Orona said.

Fleishman said that during the negotiation process, staff asked the Sheriff’s Office for data on the services it’s currently providing to the city of Solvang specifically.

“We asked for some performance metrics. We asked for documentation, and we were met with resistance,” Fleishman said. “The sheriff’s department said they could not provide us with the kind of statistics we were looking for. And if they could, it would be an additional charge. So, it’s problematic.”

“What you’re exposing is the worst-case scenario when you’re negotiating with a single supplier,” Elizabeth Orona said to Fleishman. “This is taxpayer money. The lack of transparency is incredibly concerning.”

Councilmember Robert Clarke described the contract as putting the City Council “between a rock and a hard place.”

“As much as it pains me, I’m going to move to approve this contract,” said Councilmember David Brown, whose motion was seconded by Mayor Mark Infanti before being approved 5-0.

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