In what appears to be the first public event since Mayor Helene Schneider announced her plans for four proposed ballot initiatives, she attended a town hall meeting Wednesday night at New Life Church to discuss the Invest in Santa Barbara campaign.
Schneider and her team — including paid signature-gatherers and volunteers — have been hitting the streets with petitions to find out whether three of the four initial initiatives can even qualify for the November ballot.
The measures each require the support of 15 percent of registered voters, or about 6,700 people.
The mayor’s methods were unconventional in a town where almost every announcement features a crowd of supporters. She stood alone during February’s announcement and told the media she wanted to bring her ideas directly to voters.
She said her motivation for pursuing the diverse slate of initiatives was to “get rid of the zero sum game” and come up with solutions that would require different groups of people to pitch in.
“My challenge to the community is: Are you willing to be a little uncomfortable about something in order to get to the greater good in the end?” Schneider said Wednesday night.
Responding to questions from congregants and residents at Wednesday’s meeting, she said she didn’t want to disclose who was financially supporting her campaign to get the measures on the ballot — or how much she has received so far — because it becomes political and moves away from analyzing the ideas.
Campaign finance statements aren’t due until late April, but she says her supporters include individuals — no organizations — who have supported her personal campaigns or care about issues such as homeless services, affordable housing and gang prevention.
Schneider is proposing a change to business license fees for establishments in the downtown entertainment district because of the disproportionate amount of police officers who spend their nights there when bars let out. Establishments that sell alcohol and are open after 11 p.m. for at least six nights per calendar year would pay a quarter-percent of their gross revenues as the business license fee. Money from that would go to the General Fund for unspecified purposes since such a specification would require a two-thirds vote to pass instead of 50 percent plus one, Schneider said.
Though she says she would pursue a resolution to spend that money on enhanced public safety in that area at night, that would require support of the City Council, and there is no language even mentioning that possibility in the ballot statement.
Measures for pension reform and a half-cent sales tax must pass or fail together.
The city has a $267 million shortfall in its pension system because of low investment returns and benefit enhancements, a problem Finance Director Bob Samario says could take 20 years to resolve.
Schneider’s initiative would mandate changes to employee contracts once the current ones expire; every employee would have to pay their entire employee-paid share into the California Public Employees Retirement System. Right now, the city pays all of the Fire Department’s employee portion, most of the Police Department’s portion and some of everyone else’s portion in addition to the employer match portion.
As Schneider put it, for every dollar a firefighter gets paid, the city pays an additional 46 cents for retirement, and the initiative would make the employee pay 9 of the 46 cents. The rest of employee contracts — compensation and benefits — would still be negotiated through collective bargaining.
“It would be equitable without gutting what pensions are all about,” she said.
What Schneider didn’t mention was the additional financial burden of “roll-up benefits” — when the city pays an employee’s retirement contribution, that money counts toward the employee’s final compensation and boosts the retirement payout.
The sales tax revenues would help fund services that have been cut in tough budget years, such as homeless prevention and outreach, human services, rental housing mediation task force, park maintenance, public safety and infrastructure needs that have grown since the Redevelopment Agency was disbanded, according to Schneider.
She initially proposed a fourth measure but has backed off amid opposition from the education community. There were concerns that a mention of schools in Schneider’s ballot package would distract or confuse voters about the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s attempt to renew its parcel tax in June. Schneider said Wednesday that the focus for education funding needs to be in June.
However, after that election, if the sales tax measure qualifies for the ballot, she plans to ask the City Council to support splitting its revenues evenly between the city and SBUSD. As an advisory measure, it only needs council support to be approved.