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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 7:54 am | Fair 44º


Plan to Leave Goleta West Sanitary District Wins Council’s Backing

As both sides cast a wary eye toward Sacramento, the detachment proposal is forwarded to LAFCO for consideration

Diving right in to the sticky situation involving the city’s proposed withdrawal from the Goleta West Sanitary District, the Goleta City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to forward the plan to the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission. If the agency approves, the section of the special district that falls within city boundaries would be detached from the district’s jurisdiction.

With both the special district and the city fearing state raids on the GWSD’s roughly $30 million in reserves, and anticipating rate increases because of necessary treatment plant upgrades, both sides argued the merits of detaching the 2,500 parcels in the city that are part of the district.

The special district serves the western portion of Goleta, handling wastewater collection as well as street sweeping in its area, which also includes parts of the western unincorporated area and the Embarcadero Municipal Improvements District. The district pumps its wastewater to the Goleta Sanitary District, with which it has a contract for facilities.

Because of its existence before the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which changed the way property taxes are handled in California, the district continues to receive revenue from property taxes, as well as for fee-based services, building a sizable reserve in the process.

According to City Manager Dan Singer, Goleta would be better able to protect the property taxes the sanitary district has accumulated from potential state captures. Under the city’s proposal, roughly 78 percent of the property taxes accumulated by the district would go to the city, reflective of the proportion of property tax revenue generated by the parcels within city limits. Either the city would contract out to operate the sanitary system within its boundaries, or operate the system itself.

“We think the city staff see a pot of gold,” said Goleta West Sanitary District general counsel Steve Amerikaner, skeptical that the city could better protect the reserves from the state than the district could.

Under the city’s revenue-neutrality agreement with the county, up to half of the roughly $1.28 million the city stands to gain per year in property taxes could go to the county, Amerikaner pointed out. The city’s RNA is currently being renegotiated but it is still unclear whether those talks would have any bearing on this situation.

And with the upcoming necessary improvements to the sanitation facilities — something in the neighborhood of about $20 million — the funds might not be the kind of reserves the city has in mind, Amerikaner said.

Similarly skeptical were local residents who for years have had the services of GWSD, a district that has been around for more than 50 years since its start as the Isla Vista Sanitary District.

“I don’t know why you’d want to take on the tar baby of operating the sanitary services,” said Roger Lagerquist, a GWSD ratepayer since 1962 who pointed out his satisfaction with the district’s operations.

Reed Radke, another resident of western Goleta, expressed doubt that the city would handle the property taxes it would get, which it would put to use for general purposes.

“It’s not in the interest of the city. You’re taking money from one pocket and putting it into another pocket,” he said.

Hilary Hauser, head of Heal the Ocean, expressed her concern over the city’s use of the money for purposes other than sanitation services, and potential environmental impacts such a move may incur.

“Would you be doing this if you knew that you knew you couldn’t spend a dime on anything but the wastewater operations?” she asked. “Would you be doing this if you knew you had to do (a CEQA analysis)?”

From the city’s perspective, the detachment would also do something to even out the proportion of property taxes paid by city residents vs. the city services they receive. Currently, GWSD customers pay more of their property taxes to the district than to the city, and proportionally less of their property taxes to the city than residents outside of the GWSD service area.

“City services are being subsidized by the property taxpayers in east Goleta,” said Councilwoman Margaret Connell.

For Councilman Eric Onnen, the property tax dollars accumulated by the district “should really be applied to public benefit in a more current basis, not hoarded for 30 years for the eventual benefit of the public.”

Another factor for the city is its desire to get the item on LAFCO’s March agenda, to get the process rolling as soon as possible as California runs out of cash. GWSD members and the public balked at the speed of the process.

Concurrent with the application to LAFCO, the city will be in talks with the district via a subcommittee of Mayor Roger Aceves and Councilman Ed Easton. The matter will return to the council Feb. 17.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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