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Santa Barbara Council Gives the OK to Research Voter Survey on Bag Tax

City staff will look further into the plan, with the cost and other details requiring council approval

Paper or plastic? The question is as much a part of grocery shopping as squeezing produce to see if it’s ripe.

But Santa Barbara wants to change that.

The City Council on Tuesday discussed a solid waste committee recommendation to consider a tax on single-use bags, and ultimately voted to have the staff further research conducting a voter survey.

Many California jurisdictions have tried to ban bags, but most have rescinded the bans after being sued by organizations involved with the chemical industry, including the American Chemistry Council, said Stephen MacIntosh, the environmental services supervisor with the finance department.

He said Fairfax, Manhattan Beach, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Francisco have all attempted bans, and he didn’t know of a U.S. jurisdiction that had successfully imposed a comprehensive program, with education components and a tax.

Staff recommended that the city conduct a voter survey to determine the community’s willingness to pay a tax on single-use bags from certain retail establishments, and if so, what amount residents would be willing to pay. People could avoid the point-of-sale tax by bringing bags with them.

New taxes require voter approval. The price tag of the survey, which could be as high as $50,000, and other specifics will come back before the council for approval at a later date.

The issue of single-use bags’ low recycling rates, threat to marine wildlife and litter — especially with plastic bags — contribute to the arguments supporting the tax.

Many people — members of the council and the public — took issue with the unknown price tag for the survey, and urged being as thrifty as possible.

The city’s “Where’s Your Bag?” campaign launched in September 2008 and has since held stakeholder meetings, developed an outreach plan and had a kickoff event in August.

The campaign includes training cashiers and baggers of local participating grocery stores, handing out reusable bags and posting lots of signage.

There have also been prize patrols, which will continue for several months, at participating stores for people who bring their own bags.

Representatives of Surfrider, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper spoke in support of the tax — and any other measures to change consumer behavior regarding single-use bags.

John Dixon of Tri-County Produce has been contributing to the campaign in every sense, but he says the timing isn’t right for an additional tax. He has had signage in his store and has register buttons so cashiers can document whether someone brought their own bag.

Since starting the campaign, he said he has had an increased number of customers using their own bags.

Councilman Dale Francisco agreed with Dixon, saying it was fiscally irresponsible to raise taxes without needing to and commissioning a study for up to $50,000.

He was the sole dissenting vote.

Although City Administrator Jim Armstrong can approve projects up to $25,000, he said he will put the survey proposal on the agenda, regardless of estimated cost.

The last two meetings of the year have been canceled, so the survey most likely will be voted on by the next City Council, which takes office Jan. 12.

The third annual event “A Day Without A Bag” is coming to the South Coast in the “Where’s Your Bag?” campaign.

From 3 p.m .to 5 p.m. Thursday, free reusable bags will be available near the Paseo Nuevo shopping center on State Street. On Saturday, multiple events are planned to further environmental education about single-use bags.

There will be a swap meet from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Santa Barbara High School, and another one at the same time at Ventura College, as well as activities from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Ty Warner Sea Center on Stearns Wharf.

Click here to sign up to receive Noozhawk’s free daily e-Bulletin and take our poll on the bag tax. It’s exclusive to e-Bulletin subscribers.

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

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