A task force charged with examining failing infrastructure programs in Santa Barbara is urging the city to find money for much-needed capital improvement projects in the Police, Fire and Parks & Recreation departments, possibly by asking voters to tax themselves.
At the top of the group’s list of priorities was building a $44 million police station, as well as improving fire-and-emergency disaster facilities, according to task force members at a presentation to the City Council this week.
“Capital is easy to forget,” said task force chairman Richard Jensen, a retired executive from the University of California. “Nobody (is) going to come up and beat on the podium when you’re in tight times.”
The group, called the Infrastructure Financing Task Force, also presented council members with a 40-page report they produced after nine months of study. The report says one-third of the city’s list outlining capital projects to be completed in the next five years — worth $442 million — are unfunded.
The report describes the police station at 215 E. Figueroa St. as a “dilapidated, negative work environment, which should be completely replaced.” Specifically, the report says the station suffers from “an acute shortage of space,” with an Emergency Operations Command Center in cramped quarters and poorly equipped to handle a major disaster.
The council-appointed task force was made up of seven members with a broad range of professional experience.
Also high on the task force’s list of public-safety priorities are projects to build a $6.5 million shared facility for the city and the U.S. Forest Service at Fire Station No. 7 on Stanwood Drive, and a $5.9 million renovation project at Fire Station No. 1 on West Carrillo.
Though appointed by the City Council, the task force was not a cheerleader of the city, although it did credit the city for being well managed and in good financial shape, even on capital projects.
“It isn’t as if we’ve got bridges that are ready to fall into the Mississippi River,” Jensen said.
It also dinged the City Council on occasion, for things such as not prioritizing the order in which the unfunded capital improvement projects should be completed. As an example, the report said the city puts the unfunded public-safety projects such as the police station on equal footing with planned improvements to the Park & Recreation Department’s restrooms.
The committee recommended several possibilities for coming up with more money.
The suggestions include asking voters to pass a general-obligation bond for the purpose of building specific projects. That essentially would raise property taxes for a period of time, and therefore require a two-thirds majority for approval.
The report did acknowledge that a past attempt to float a general-obligation bond for a new police station in Santa Barbara failed.
The report also urges city officials to begin discussing the possibility of asking voters for another tax — this one a half-cent sales tax — in the event that one or both of two revenue-generating initiatives on the ballot fails Nov. 4.
They are Measure A, a countywide transportation initiative, and Measure G, a citywide tax that seeks to continue collecting a tax on telephone use. Neither measure seeks to add a new tax, but rather to continue one. (In government speak, such taxes are known as “revenue neutral.”)
Measure A would continue — for 30 years — a countywide half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1989. Measure A would kick in when the old tax expires in 2010, and would generate nearly $1 billion, to be split between the north and south counties on transportation projects such as repairing potholes, widening freeways and expanding bus services.
Although Measure A enjoys an unusually broad base of support, it still faces an uphill climb. Because of a state law passed in the 1990s making it more difficult for localities to tax themselves, the passage of Measure A requires the support of two-thirds of the voters; its 1989 predecessor needed just a simple majority.
That fact was not lost on the task force.
“Hopefully I’m wrong, but it is uncertain whether Measure A and Measure G are going to be passed,” said Dudley Morris, a management consultant. “I think you have to be realistic about that.”
At the same time, the group said, funds from those two sources of revenue are critical: They account for 50 percent of the city’s annual outlay for street maintenance.
The group also urged the city to raise its slip fees for mooring boats in the marina. The report said most coastal cities are charging more than Santa Barbara.
For instance, while Santa Barbara charges an average of $8.15 a foot, Ventura charges $11.52 and Santa Cruz $9.20, according to the report.
“Most of the rates were 20 percent above Santa Barbara rates, but some are as high as 56 percent more,” the report said.
Raising the fees would free up the Parks & Recreation Department to set aside money for other necessary infrastructure improvements, the committee said. For instance, the Municipal Tennis Court Building at 1414 Park Place (near the Santa Barbara Zoo) was built in the 1930s and needs a customer service area, according to the report.
Others on the Parks & Recreation list include renovating the Cabrillo Bathhouse, restoring East Beach, rehabilitating the Westside Center and excavating the sediment from Andree Clark Bird Refuge, “thus eliminating the noxious odors and making the zoo a more pleasant place to visit.”
The group also recommends that the city “increase efficiency” in all departments 2 percent to 3 percent annually for about five years, allowing the city to eventually set aside 10 percent of its general fund for capital projects, the report said. As it is, the city allocates just 2 percent for that purpose.
Other suggestions included:
» Consider leasing or selling 500,000 square feet of general-fund facilities that aren’t being used.
» Enforce an existing ordinance that outlaws aggressive panhandling, as well as develop a program to overcome Santa Barbara’s growing gang problem, all with an eye toward maintaining the “civility of Santa Barbara and its viability as a destination resort.”
» Expand the use of public-private charitable partnerships.
The council didn’t have much to say about the presentation, but seemed generally impressed by the work of the task force.
“In all the United States right now, all the cities are talking about infrastructure, because a lot of it was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it’s just crumbling,” Mayor Marty Blum said. “It’s going to be huge. We’re going to hear a lot about it in the next couple of years.”
In the end, the council decided to forward the task force’s recommendations to the city finance committee.
In addition to Jensen and Morris, the task force includes vice chairman Dr. Stephen Kurtzer, founder and CEO of several technology companies; Renee Grubb, CEO of Village Properties Real Estate Corporation; Robert Geis, the auditor/controller of Santa Barbara County; Frank Schipper, CEO of a construction company in his name; and W. Scott Burns, a private mortgage investment banker.
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at email@example.com.