Planning for a possible Santa Barbara County split is apparently too large a task to complete in just six months.

The five-member panel studying a possible split reluctantly agreed Monday to ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for a six-month extension, giving itself until May 10, 2005, to complete an in-depth study that could form the foundation for a county divorce.

The Mission County Formation Review Commission must report on a new county's ability to support itself financially, a split's effect on the area to remain Santa Barbara County, a fair distribution of debt and assets between the two, and the final boundaries of county supervisor, school, road and judicial districts.

Santa Barbara County residents will vote on the issue in March 2006.

Commissioners had originally hoped to complete their report by November, and still hope to finish by January, if not sooner. But the exhaustive look at how a new county could function has proved to be a lot of work, especially for county staff, who are doing most of the number-crunching.

Commission secretary John Torell outlined a new timeline for completing the work Monday at the panel's meeting in Santa Barbara. The new schedule was not quite fast enough for Chairman Ted Tedesco, who urged staff to compress the timeline and bring a quicker one back next week.

At its next session the commission will hear county Auditor-Controller Bob Geis' report on the economic viability of a new county and a possible division of county debt and assets. That information will be the "meat and potatoes" of the study, Tedesco said.

A new Mission County could face a shortfall of $30 million to $35 million a year, said Torell, the county's assistant auditor-controller.

Last week Bill Watkins, director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, predicted a new Mission County would face an annual shortfall of $28 million, based on the North County tax base and the services it needs.

But that estimate does not include costs of duplicating services, such as creating a new sheriff's dispatch center, a North County jail, and bomb squad, Torell noted.

Commissioners said those services might not have to be doubled and could instead be contracted out from another county, though specific cost-savings are unclear.

The commission Monday also delved into the nitty-gritty of what should happen to the county's 36 independent and 16 dependent special districts if a split happens. Mostly, commissioners agreed a hands-off approach is best.

However, commissioners may recommend that the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), a regional body comprised of the county supervisors and representatives from each of the county's eight cities, remain intact until bonds for a local transportation tax are paid off.

The SBCAG board makes regional transportation decisions and oversees Measure D funding, a local 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation projects that will be paid off in 2010. Commission staff felt that SBCAG should continue making decisions until then, though representation would have to include some supervisors and city representatives from both counties.

After the bonds are paid, the new Mission County Board of Supervisors could decide to form its own transportation authority, join with another county, or keep the current agency intact.

Commissioners discussed, but did not make a decision, on a two-year transition period in which the new county would wean itself from the old.

Staff writer Erin Carlyle can be reached at 739-2218 or by e-mail at ecarlyle@pulitzer.net.

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