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Goleta Accused of Steamrolling Measure A to Gain Traction in Dispute with County

The city considers a competing sales-tax measure to offset its revenue-sharing agreement with the county. Officials in other cities say the move comes at their expense by jeopardizing the transit initiative.

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Measure A, a massive transportation initiative for Santa Barbara County, would fund $1 billion worth of bus, highway and other road projects throughout the county over the next 30 years. The Goleta City Council’s plan to put a competing sales-tax measure on the November ballot could jeopardize passage of the initiative. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

In a game of brinkmanship, the Goleta City Council is in a standoff with Santa Barbara County over money, threatening a massive transportation initiative that, if approved, would bankroll $1 billion worth of highway, bus and other road projects in every city and unincorporated area of the county for three decades.

The matter most likely will come to a head at Tuesday’s Goleta council meeting.

Specifically, the Goleta council is considering putting a citywide sales-tax measure on the November ballot that even its own members acknowledge could pose a significant hurdle for the big one, Measure A.

The Goleta City Council is considering the move because its members are at their wit’s end over what they say is the county’s refusal to renegotiate a revenue-sharing agreement the agencies entered into when Goleta incorporated in 2002. Goleta says the revenue neutrality agreement — which, by law, counties can require for aspiring cities — is a raw deal, costing the city an estimated $8.2 million in tax revenue next year alone, or a third of its revenue.

Meanwhile, some officials from other cities are not amused at Goleta’s power play.

“I understand the city is upset with the revenue-neutrality agreement. The fact is, that agreement was never fair,” Carpinteria City Councilman Joe Armendariz said. “But what does that have to do with Carpinteria? What does that have to do with Santa Barbara, with Lompoc or Summerland? What does that have to do with widening the freeway, with expanding our bus service so we have alternatives?”

Armendariz says the failure of Measure A would cost his city $800,000 a year.

“How did the city of Carpinteria find itself on the short end of that stick?” he asked.

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said she understands Goleta’s desire to get out of the agreement. “But if I were on the Goleta City Council, I’d say our bus service and our entire road picture is more important than this measure right now for November,” she said. “I would vote no for November but keep it open until later.”

If approved by two-thirds of county voters, Measure A would continue for 30 years the half-cent sales tax that has been bankrolling countywide road repairs since 1989, when voters approved the original measure. That tax sunsets in 2010.

If Measure A fails, elected officials of many stripes — Republicans and Democrats, highway lovers and commuter-rail cheerleaders — say the effects would be far-reaching.

The Metropolitan Transit District, which serves the entire South Coast, says it would lose about 20 percent of its $20 million budget, forcing it to shut down a commensurate portion of bus routes. Also, within 10 years, roads most likely would deteriorate to pre-1989 levels, and many Highway 101 widening projects on the South Coast would be delayed or abandoned, according to a fact sheet from the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. SBCAG also says commuter buses such as the Clean Air Express, Coastal Express and Valley Express would be canceled.

Measure A isn’t universally loved. It is opposed by the Republican Central Committee and the Lompoc Republican Party. But it has several key supporters, such as Armendariz, the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association who vociferously opposed the first failed iteration of the initiative, last year’s Measure D, which included a quarter-cent tax increase.

Like Measure A, Goleta’s initiative would not raise taxes but continue the half-cent sales tax.

However, Goleta’s initiative would cover only Goleta, while Measure A would cover the entire county. Although Goleta’s would kick in only if Measure A fails, officials from all over the county fear it could be a poison pill for the bigger one because Measure A needs a two-thirds majority to pass. Goleta represents a sizable chunk of voters, and voters tend to be wary of passing multiple sales-tax measures. They also tend to favor local measures over regional ones.

Goleta City Council members note they have endorsed Measure A and say they would encourage residents to vote yes on both. However, Councilman Eric Onnen doesn’t deny that the possibility of a competing sales-tax measure is a bargaining chip to force the county’s hand.

“There is some use of the leverage,” he said. “That’s how things get done. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s the only way we had an opportunity. … It’s a very difficult decision for us to make coming up. Ultimately, it would be a detriment to the region if Measure A failed.”

Mayor Michael Bennett said a phone call from a county official asking to reopen negotiations might be enough for him to consider scrapping the idea of putting a competing measure on the ballot.

“That would be tremendous if that were to occur,” he said. “We hope to hear from them.”

Revenue-neutrality agreements prevent counties from losing a disproportionate amount of money from sales and property taxes that would start to go to a new city.

Bennett and other Goleta officials have said that the agreement is particularly hard on Goleta, and that it is the worst of its kind for any new city in California.

Per the 2002 agreement, the county takes half of Goleta’s sales and property taxes and 40 percent of its hotel bed taxes. Beginning in 2012, the deal would get a little better for Goleta, reducing the county’s share of the sales tax by 20 percent and allowing Goleta to keep all of its bed taxes. However, the terms of the agreement are to go on in perpetuity — in other words, for forever.

Bennett said he realizes the county is cash-strapped, so Goleta has proposed no changes until 2012.

Some county officials say they don’t appreciate the hardball tactics.

“I don’t want to be held hostage,” 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf said. “What the county is asking for is to give us time to evaluate. … We may not feel we need to change things.”

She said she believes the county already has made Goleta a fair offer — to forgive $1.5 million in debt — but the Goleta camp isn’t impressed. 

Wolf said Measure A is vital to the county.

“If Measure A doesn’t pass, then there are things many people care about that won’t happen,” she said.

Also supportive of Measure A is 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who often votes opposite Wolf.

“It’s very necessary for the maintenance of our roads and the matching funds for state and federal highway funding,” he said.

He added that he isn’t worried about a competing ballot measure from Goleta, saying he believes Measure A will pass either way.

Firestone also said he wasn’t yet certain about whether he would like to change the revenue-neutrality agreement.

“It’s a difficult position for both of us, because both the county and Goleta are short of funds,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be contacted at [email protected]

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