After a lengthy discussion, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to request that the Local Agency Formation Commission complete its own study of the city of Goleta’s proposal to detach from the Goleta West Sanitary District before it takes a position on the matter.
Goleta, which applied to LAFCO last year to detach from the 56-year-old district, was sent back to the drawing board when the commission deemed its application incomplete. Since then, independent studies commissioned by the city and GWSD have brought a deluge of new — and often conflicting — information into the mix, but county supervisors have to give the final OK before the detachment can go to a LAFCO hearing.
Having already received a jumble of facts and figures from the city’s consultant, Goleta West’s consultant and their own staff, the supervisors decided that they want to see LAFCO’s independent study of the detachment — required as a matter of procedure before it can be heard by LAFCO’s board.
“We felt like we needed an independent analysis of how this would impact Isla Vista specifically,” board chairwoman and Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said.
LAFCO Executive Officer Bob Braitman said he needs to have the city’s complete application before his staff can move forward with its study. Goleta City Manager Dan Singer said Tuesday he would have it to him within the next week or two. After that, Braitman estimated that detachment could be on LAFCO’s agenda in as soon as two months.
As the complex issue has unfolded during the past year, decision-makers and the public have focused on several key issues, including the potential for significant sewage rate increases in Isla Vista and Goleta’s unincorporated west end if the city takes over the section of GWSD’s territory within city limits, leaving outlying areas cut off from the newly created sewage entity the city wants to create.
Perhaps a larger issue is what will become of property tax revenues to which Goleta West is currently entitled through state Proposition 13. City officials contend that the money should find a new home in the city’s General Fund, but GWSD maintains that the money is needed to maintain a reliable sewage infrastructure.
Richard Battles, counsel for the neighboring Goleta Sanitary District, said two-thirds of Goleta West’s $30 million reserve fund — with which Goleta officials had in the past expressed interest in using for various city projects — will be needed for a joint $50 million sewage treatment plant upgrade project in the works. Goleta West receives about $1.2 million annually from property tax revenue collected within its jurisdictional boundaries.
Singer countered that with the city running the sewer system in areas within city limits, annual cost savings could total $250,000 to $500,000. He also asserted that by becoming part of a larger government agency, sewer service operations and decision-making would become more accessible and transparent to the public by being available on televised hearings.
Goleta Mayor Eric Onnen expressed hope in working with county officials to collect all the information needed for a good decision.
“What we think we’re here for today is to produce a path that gets us to the best possible outcome,” he said.
“Sewer systems are expensive to operate — deferred maintenance is not an option,” GWSD attorney Steve Amerikaner said, adding that property tax revenue is essential to the quality of Goleta’s sewer service and the district’s ability to keep rates relatively low. He suggested consolidation with the Goleta Sanitary District as an option favorable to detachment into the city of Goleta.
“If a million and a half dollars is taken out of sewage and used to pave roads or anything else that isn’t sewer, you have to backfill that [loss of revenue] with [higher] rates,” he said. “We believe that detachment will decrease the quality of sewer service.”
With the county’s tenant-rights staff report next on Tuesday’s agenda, the room was already packed with Isla Vista residents and activists eager to see the Goleta West Sanitary District kept intact.
Isla Vista Property Owners’ Association President Charles Eckert, who owns many large apartment buildings in Isla Vista, asked the board to consider the impact detachment would have on the Isla Vista Master Plan. Already years in the making, the plan is under review by the California Coastal Commission, and Eckert noted that changing a basic building block such as sewer service would throw the whole deal askew — possibly setting it back by years.
“This would be a step backward for IV, generally,” he said of the detachment proposal. “The IV Master Plan is predicated upon assumptions about infrastructure and services.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Heal the Ocean Executive Director Hillary Hauser, who has been a vocal proponent of Rincon’s septic-to-sewer conversion. “Once this is at LAFCO, who knows where it will go?”
The city of Goleta has not yet formulated with the county a new revenue neutrality agreement — a tax-sharing scheme set up when the city incorporated in 2002 — a concern of many who see detachment as a loss of tax revenue that Goleta West is currently able to keep close to home.
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, whose district includes Isla Vista and other Goleta West areas, cautioned against giving up the district’s reserves and called for more time to evaluate the issue.
— Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.