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Local News

Santa Barbara Council Shelves Decision on Bag-Tax Survey

Divided on the issue, city leaders decide to give current efforts to reduce use more time to work, and will resume the discussion this summer

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday postponed any action regarding a single-use bag survey and tax given the polarized positions of those on the dais.

The council directed staff to look into conducting a public opinion survey about a tax on single-use bags in retail establishments. The amount of the tax, distinction between a per-bag or per-visit fee, and other factors would be part of the survey — the purpose of which would be to gauge voter opinion.

The preferred bid, a $23,319 proposal by research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, would be funded by solid waste fund user fees. The cost of putting the tax directly onto the November ballot would cost $40,000 to $50,000 and require a unanimous vote by the council — unlikely given the opinions voiced Tuesday.

While Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilman Das Williams firmly supported putting the measure on the ballot, the other members opposed either the survey, the idea of a bag tax — or both.

In recent months, the city’s “Where’s Your Bag?” campaign has been working on an educational, voluntary effort to reduce single-use plastic and paper grocery bag usage in the city through store partnerships.

Williams noted the possibility of revenue to the city and reduced environmental effects as benefits to the tax.

Tri-County Produce provides the only real bag-use data within the city, since stores aren’t required to disclose recycling statistics to municipalities.

Tri-County owner John Dixon said about 39 percent of his customers use reusable bags, but he doesn’t support a tax — even an avoidable one. Although it most likely would reduce his costs as a grocer, he said he doesn’t support passing the costs onto the customer.

Using state numbers, Santa Barbara is estimated to use about 47 million single-use bags per year, or about 500 per person per year, environmental services supervisor Stephen MacIntosh said Tuesday.

Some members of the public spoke in favor of the tax — and any measure to reduce bag use — saying it would be an incentive for people to change their habits.

A group of about 15 people — complete with a bongo drummer and a man playing Pink Floyd tunes on an acoustic guitar — calling for the tax to be put directly onto the ballot assembled outside City Hall in the hours leading up to Tuesday’s meeting.

Williams, a longtime proponent of removing plastic bags from the waste stream, said the rest of the council wouldn’t go for it without a community survey on whether the tax should go on the ballot.

Scott Walker, a UCSB student and graduate of the university’s Blue Horizons summer media program, received a grant from the Associated Students Coastal Fund to create a public-service announcement about the detrimental nature of single-use bags.

While the group targeted plastic bags as the most environmentally harmful among single-use grocery bags, Walker said his group supports a tax on both paper and plastic bags to avoid legal action from industry lobbyists.

“The ultimate goal is to get a ban, but right now we’re trying for a bag tax,” Walker said. “It’s a voluntary tax. You can use reusable bags and not get taxed.”

Representatives of the Surfrider Foundation, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and UCSB’s Environmental Affairs Board spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in favor of the city’s efforts to use voluntary educational efforts to reduce use and advocated for any measure to further the effort.

Ideally, citizens would vote for the fee, then not pay it because they want an environmental change, said Nathan Alley of the Environmental Defense Center.

It’s possible the tax could be placed on the ballot through a citizen initiative, which would require signatures from about 10 percent of voters but no environmental review process. Schneider encouraged advocates of the effort to reduce bag use to pursue an initiative, since the future of council action is uncertain.

Councilman Dale Francisco said he wouldn’t support “blowing another $23,000 on consultants,” but that he would support putting it on the ballot — even though he doesn’t support the tax itself.

Other members agreed, saying the city’s fiscal environment made the survey’s price tag a deal breaker, so that current efforts — through voluntary participation — should be given more time to get results.

Councilman Grant House said he hasn’t received any information as to why the tax would be important or imminent for the council to take up.

The City Council will resume its discussion of the issue in July.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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