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Jackson's trial could strain county's resources

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Just as Santa Barbara County begins its expensive, high-profile case against entertainer Michael Jackson, public officials here are worried about how to maintain the courts, police force, and other public services in the face of significant budget cuts.

"It'll be a very expensive case, probably the most expensive one we've had here," said Mayor Pro Tempore Dan Secord. Officials declined to estimate the cost, but a consultant who works with the county has pegged it at $4 million.

County administrator Michael Brown did not dispute that figure and cited the demands a long-running trial will place on the county. "We have to provide traffic control, parking, more policing, and extra security for the court officers," he said. "We need to install computer feeds, porta-potties and anticipate other ways in which visitors will impact our region.

"A trial will certainly cost us, but until we get more details from the district attorney, we don't know how much," said Brown.

The county is already seeking ways to save litigation expenses. It recently delayed Jackson's much-anticipated arraignment one week partly because of the singer's travel plans. The new date, Jan. 16, is a furlough day for Santa Barbara Superior Courts. "That means that all of the other county courts except one will be closed that day," said Brown. Therefore, bailiffs, officers, and other court personnel from around the county will be available to help handle the media onslaught focused on the Jackson courtroom that day.

Underlying Santa Barbara County's financial constraints is the fact that it, like every other county in California, is bracing for budget cuts after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced the state's tax on vehicles. Although the state collects that tax, the money belongs to the cities and counties where those vehicles are registered.

California has a $14 billion deficit; the new governor's tax cut has deprived local governments of $4 billion. He recently pledged to return a portion of that money, $2.65 billion, over the next six months, but Santa Barbara officials remain wary.

"I'll believe it when I see the checks coming in," said Jim Armstrong, administrator of the city of Santa Barbara. The first check is due today.

Meanwhile, Armstrong and other officials worry that the state will cut other municipal-related programs in order to fund the partial return of their tax funds.

The city of Santa Barbara could lose 5 percent of its budget, or $4 million, coming on the heels of past cuts. "We've had 2 1/2 percent budget cuts in each of the last two years," Armstrong said. "This new crisis only makes things worse."

Santa Maria City, where the Jackson trial is scheduled to take place, expects to lose $3.4 million of its $38 million budget, or about 10 percent. "It would be devastating to lose all of that that money, especially with a high-profile trial coming up," said city manager Tim Ness. But a long trial will also attract out-of-town media employees who will spend money in local hotels and restaurants, generating tax revenue, he added.

Public officials aren't making budget adjustments until they are certain that the governor can legally refund local payments without the Legislature's approval. "We still don't understand how it's going to shake out," said Brown, the county administrator.

Santa Barbara County stands to lose $18.5 million in the next six months and another $38 million in the next fiscal year. That equals 25 percent of its local general revenue fund -- and the losses will set in just as the county's case against Jackson is expected to begin.

At the same time, the county will start negotiating new contracts with unions for sheriff's deputies, court officers, firemen, nurses, clerks, and secretaries. Some of the unions will be seeking raises.

The growing lack of affordable housing has stymied the county and city in attracting and retaining good workers, said Brown. "These people make on average about $50,000 to $60,000, yet a lot of them can't afford to buy a home here." The median price for a single-family home in the area is $900,000, and the median price for a condominium is $500,000, said Bill Watkins, director of the Santa Barbara Economic Forecast.

During the Jackson trial, the county will also be negotiating with the union that represents public defenders, prosecutors, and others who work for District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who has charged Jackson.

Meanwhile, Sneddon has publicly pressed for the county to streamline its antiquated jury selection process before the Jackson case goes to a jury trial. Santa Barbara is one of 14 of the state's 58 counties that still uses a two-step system. Switching to the recommended one-step process will cost Santa Barbara County more money.

And the county and Santa Maria City have formed a special projects team to study the logistics and finances of handling the big case. "It's an unprecedented situation," said Watkins, but officials are bracing for what could turn into the most sensational celebrity trial in today's 24-hour cable world. Staff members have spent several weeks on that task, and will spend many more until they are ready to deliver their recommendations, said Brown. "We are looking at not just the media, but the impact from fans who come to watch the spectacle."

Sneddon is now referring most media inquiries to his new Hollywood public relations firm, Tellem Worldwide, which specializes in crisis management for celebrities. Over the years, the firm has done work for Warner Brothers, Clear Channel, and Universal Studios.

Publicist Susan Tellem did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but according to the Associated Press, she said she offered her free services after watching Sneddon's first news conference last month.

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