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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 10:48 am | Fair 61º


Facing ‘Tough Choices,’ Santa Barbara Council Discusses Budget Priorities for New Fiscal Year

The Santa Barbara City Council talked Monday about priorities for the upcoming fiscal year, and will have to weigh how quickly to restore the city's reserves to full strength while balancing requests from city departments to restore cuts and make capital improvements.

While some clarity was reached at Monday's budget hearing, city staff will come back with more information on June 16 and then return for a council vote on June 23.

The recommended budget for the 2016 fiscal year has a $292 million operating budget and a $106 million capital program.

The city has experienced strong growth in transient occupancy tax, and also sales taxes, to a lesser degree in the past year.

The city's general fund experienced several setbacks last year, however, including district election litigation, and the city paid out $1.7 million in settlement costs.

The city's reserves could see a $1.9 million shortfall in 2016, and City Administrator Paul Casey said the council would have to decide on priorities between replenishing the reserves, requests from city departments to restore positions that had been cut in prior years and capital needs.

"They're tough choices," he said.

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss piped up that a discussion about the legality of vacation rentals will be coming up soon. The city could stand to lose as $800,000 in revenues if it chooses to make them illegal, he said.

"It could have a substantial impact on the budget," Casey admitted, but said that staff was not planning yet on that loss.

Several public speakers were on hand to encourage the city to approve discretionary spending.

Officials from the homeless shelter Casa Esperanza were on hand to request $125,000, and TV Santa Barbara staff were present to ask for $19,000. The Community Environmental Council asked for $50,000 for an alternative energy feasibility study.

By the end of the meeting, most of the council expressed support for funding for organizations such as Casa, Common Ground Santa Barbara and the CEC's energy study.

Additional funding for TV Santa Barbara received more mixed support, however, with several of the council members expressing concern that the station needed to become self-sustaining.

The council also agreed to look at restoring reserves within two to three years and will be looking at both options in the coming weeks.

Councilman Gregg Hart said that fully funding the reserves will prove to voters that the city has its house in order should a sales tax go forward asking voters to help maintain infrastructure. 

"That is the starting point to me to make the case to voters," he said.

The council also agreed earlier in the meeting that it would not cut public safety as part of the airport's budget. The airport, which is an enterprise fund separate from the city's general fund, has seen revenues decline in the last year due to less travel.

As a way to make up some of those costs, the three-member Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting team, or ARFF, was proposed to be reduced to two people, but the council unanimously stated the unit should stay at three.

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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