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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 5:25 am | Fair 46º


Cachuma Board Tackles Budget, Second Barrel

The staff finds way to shave 17 percent off last year's numbers

In this, the season of rapidly shriveling budgets, the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board’s staff stepped up to plate this week to deliver its pared down financial plan for the coming year.

Amid talk of restructuring the Cachuma Conservation Release Board — a related regulatory body concerned primarily with instituting fish habitat restoration projects mandated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — and several big-ticket capital improvement projects that have yet to go through, General Manager Kate Rees told the board at its meeting Monday that she and her staff had gone over the numbers with a fine-tooth comb looking for items that could be cut.

Rees’ staff whittled down this year’s budget by $564,000, a reduction of nearly 17 percent from last year’s approved $3.4 million budget. Dollar wise, the biggest diminutions came from vehicle and equipment expenses, as well as reductions in building and road maintenance, reservoir contract labor and meter maintenance. Administrative costs also were thinned out significantly, with the largest cut in that sector aimed at public information.

Rees said COMB doesn’t typically spend much on public outreach, so the 83 percent budget reduction doesn’t reflect a change in actual spending.

While the fate of the CCRB remains uncertain, its member units — the city of Santa Barbara and the Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria Valley water districts — anticipating a change or deletion of the agency, approved only a half-year’s budget for the CCRB.

With the exception of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1 — better known as ID1 — all of COMB’s member agencies are contributing members of the CCRB. In the coming months, member units and COMB’s board will have individual and joint discussions about restructuring the CCRB, which Rees said needs to be completely taken apart and built again.

“We have to figure out what works best, and the only way to do that is to start from scratch,” she said, adding that while area water managers are discussing the issue among themselves, the issue most likely will be heard by COMB at September’s public meeting.

Lee Bettencourt, ID1’s COMB representative, said his district pays for fish habitat projects independently and already had budgeted a full year of such projects. He asked how the federally mandated projects were to be continued if only six months were budgeted.

In the meantime, costs such as Rees’ and her administrative assistant’s salaries — varying percentages of which were on the CCRB’s books — are being shuffled around to COMB’s budget. The reorganization caused some confusion for Bettencourt, who expressed concern that the part of Rees’ salary passed from the CCRB’s budget — which ID1 does not pay into — to COMB’s might cost his district more without any added benefit.

“You’re moving 25 percent of the general manager’s salary over to COMB,” he said. “Does ID1 get another 25 percent of benefit?”

COMB President Das Williams reasoned that Rees spends more time working on COMB issues, justifying the increase in percentage on COMB’s books. Individual members units are expected to discuss COMB’s budget at their own board meetings during the next month, and COMB is scheduled to take some kind of action on the budget on June 28.

No small item on COMB’s list of things to accomplish this month is the second-barrel project — a redundant, 8,200-foot-long length of pipeline designed to increase reliability and restore capacity for the South Coast Conduit, the backbone of the region’s water distribution system. The project, estimated at $9 million, will be funded by a bond issue — except for Montecito’s share, which will be paid for out of its cash reserves.

Carpinteria’s withdrawal from the second-barrel’s cost sharing scheme earlier this year means that Santa Barbara and the Goleta and Montecito water districts are still in the process of working out a contribution agreement, as well as an indemnification agreement with ID1, which is not involved in the South Coast-specific project.

COMB is scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the project at a special meeting on June 9.

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

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