The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday to approve a $30-per-hour rate increase in planning processing fees, despite wide opposition from an advisory committee and local residents involved in the construction industry.

The $182-per-hour rate is meant to offset Planning and Development Department staff salary and benefit increases, department director Glenn Russell said.

Projects that require discretionary permits include most new buildings and any that are reviewed by a hearing body, and the increased fees don’t apply to building, electrical or grading permits.

The staff urged the board to approve the new fee Tuesday because it had to be included before next week’s budget submission.

Departments are given the information about salary and benefit increases each year by the auditor-controller’s office, and they have no control over the figures, Russell said.

Other options mentioned by the staff included reducing staff and services, increasing efficiency, subsidizing permit costs with general fund money and reducing the number of permits required per project.

Staff said cutting the number of employees and streamlining the processes wouldn’t decrease the hourly rate — they most likely would decrease both the cost and customer service quality to builders. Since 2000, the department’s staff has gone from 185 employees to 94.

The oversight committee, which included many industry stakeholders, rejected the fee increase and called it “inopportune,” according to staff.

Suggestions from the committee members included reducing salary and benefits, putting a halt to long-term planning and outsourcing the review of private development projects.

The supervisors noted, however, that salary reductions can’t be renegotiated between contracts.

With at least seven bargaining units, the county can’t cut salaries and benefits “willy-nilly,” Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr said.

The costs include salary, health care, retirement, vacation and sick leave.

While building and grading work has exceeded the department’s expectations, discretionary permit applications have dropped to a very low level, Russell said.

The estimated $526,000 revenue gained from the fee increase is based on a conservative estimate of how much work will be done by staff — which comes out to about 55.5 hours per week at $182 per hour.

The revenue will be split between the current and next fiscal years, Russell said.

Typically, a project has a project manager, a supervisor and often a specialist involved, who all bill hours to the applicant.

Many people expressed concern that the higher fee would be a deterrent to builders and put more people out of work, as there’s already trepidation about starting a project in this economical climate.

Debbie Cox Bultan of the Coastal Housing Coalition criticized the timing of the increase, given that unemployment is high — especially in construction trades.

Joe Armendariz, a Carpinteria city councilman who spoke on behalf of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, said the choice to raise fees was just that, and not something the supervisors were forced into. He and other speakers saw the move as a way to tell private industry to subsidize public employees.

The supervisors were split on the fee, with Joni Gray and Joe Centeno voting against it.

Gray, who represents the fourth district, said it made her “ill” and thought the item was a misprint when she saw it on the agenda.

Centeno, the fifth district supervisor, said the costs shouldn’t be passed onto the private sector when it was the county that negotiated the increased salaries and benefits. “I’m not going down this path,” he said.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal saw it as a clear choice between raising fees and using general fund money to subsidize costs, so he voted in favor of the increase.

Board chairwoman Janet Wolf, of the second district, was the tiebreaker, saying it was a “reasonable course” to raise fees and expects other jurisdictions to follow suit.

The city of Santa Barbara has the highest known planning processing rate in the Tri-Counties, at $200 per hour, according to staff, although some jurisdictions may subsidize their rates with general funds.

San Luis Obispo County charges $133 per hour, Ventura County charges $155.53 per hour and the city of Santa Maria charges $65.3 per hour.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at