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Questions Surface About Implications of Schneider’s Proposed Ballot Initiatives

Santa Barbara business owners and public safety officials begin looking into the details of the mayor's four-item plan

After Tuesday’s news conference by Mayor Helene Schneider, in which she outlined a package of initiatives she’s proposing for the November ballot, many Santa Barbara residents were left wondering exactly how the plan would affect them.

If enough signatures are gathered, four ballot items would go to the city’s voters this fall.

The first proposal would require a handful of nightclubs and bars downtown to pay a new business license fee. Schneider argued that those businesses consume an inordinate amount of police resources when they close in the early hours of the morning. Businesses that close at 11 p.m. or earlier wouldn’t be affected, leaving only a handful of businesses in the downtown core that would have to pay the new fee.

Randy Rowse, a city councilman and owner of Paradise Cafe, raised questions Wednesday about the business license fee. His establishment, which serves food until 11 p.m. and drinks until midnight, might be stuck in the middle of such an ordinance.

“The devil is going to be in the details,” he said. “I’m not going to feel fairly treated if my business license goes up because of what’s going on on State Street.”

Rowse said he has been worried about an ordinance like this coming through since the 1990s, when liquor licenses became cheap and a concentration of them popped up on Lower State Street. He believes the intent of the measure was to deal with the “velvet rope effect,” and the release of inebriated people into the streets as clubs and bars close early in the morning.

Schneider’s second proposal focuses on pension reform for city employees, and is also garnering questions. Depending on the bargaining unit, employees typically pay 8 or 9 percent of their total paycheck, and Schneider said she would like to see all employees pay that amount. Members of SEIU Local 620, which represents the largest portion of city workers, pay about 8 percent now.

Police and fire employees are currently required to put aside only 3 percent. If contributions were increased, Schneider said, the city could see as much as $2.5 million in savings every year. She said the initiative wouldn’t affect current contracts or threaten the collective bargaining process.

But public safety officials expressed concern about what the pension reform measure would mean for them.

“Our initial response is one of confusion,” said Tony Pighetti, president of the Santa Barbara City Firefighters Association.

He said he received multiple calls Wednesday from members with questions about how it would affect the collective bargaining process.

Pighetti had just watched the mayor’s press conference again, as well as her comments about the pension reform and making sure everyone pays their fair share.

“Collective bargaining has done that,” he told Noozhawk, adding that the Fire Department took salary cuts mid-contract when the city agreed to pay its PERS costs. “At the time, it made a lot of sense for both sides.” He’ll meet with Schneider on Friday, “and we’re willing to work with Helene to get where she needs to go,” adding that he’s not convinced of the need for reform.

City Manager Jim Armstrong issued a report earlier this year stating that while overall sales taxes haven’t fully recovered, the city is on track to set a record for bed tax.

“[The General Fund] is stable,” Pighetti said, adding that most city employees have already negotiated cuts. He said asking voters to approve a process that should take place through the bargaining process was a mistake.

“We’re living it, and to ask somebody to make a decision on our future contracts, that’s really not as educated about the process and doesn’t have anything at stake,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

A third initiative, which would pass only if the pension reform proposal also is approved, calls for a half-cent sales tax. The tax rate would be raised to 8.25 percent and would garner up to $10 million annually. A fourth advisory measure that voters would have to approve would split that money evenly between the City of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

Police Officers Association President Eric Beecher said the group is working on the implications the pension ballot measure would have on public safety.

“We are meeting with the mayor soon to talk about it,” he said Wednesday. “We are still trying to figure out what all this means. We just found out about it when everyone else did.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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