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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 4:22 am | Fair 41º

 
 
 
 
Advice

Fixing Isla Vista: Proposed Utility Tax Could Raise $255,000 Annually For Services

Long-awaited financial study looks at new ways to govern community adjacent to UC Santa Barbara

Isla Vista voters could be voting on a new community services district board as early as June 2016, and a utility user tax in November of the same year.
Isla Vista voters could be voting on a new community services district board as early as June 2016, and a utility user tax in November of the same year. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

A long-awaited financial study of new ways to govern Isla Vista, both modest and ambitious, was unveiled Wednesday night before a crowd of 75 people at Santa Barbara Hillel on Embarcadero del Mar.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill authored by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Carpinteria, allowing a vote of the people on a community services district with taxation powers for Isla Vista.

The legislation means residents could be voting on a new community services district board as early as June 2016, and a utility user tax in November of the same year.

“This is an absolutely historic day for Isla Vistans,” said Williams, who grew up in the community.

The proposed district, he said, would empower residents “to elect their own local representatives and enhance the levels of service they currently receive.”

But some who attended Wednesday’s presentation were not so sure.

“Like many other halfway measures, this could lead to something — or not,” said Cara Yoshizumi, a 22-year resident of Isla Vista. “What people really want is actual democracy in this town.”

Marvin Ramirez, a UCSB senior who lives in Isla Vista, called Williams’ proposal “a good initiative to give Isla Vista more self-government,” but said, “Isla Vista is forgetting that it has more than sidewalks to take care of.”

A financial study examined revenue options for the proposed Isla Vista community services district. Click to view larger
A financial study examined revenue options for the proposed Isla Vista community services district. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

“Everyone is a struggling student,” he said, noting that rent control has not been part of the discussion to date.

Governing Isla Vista, one of the largest urban communities in the state that is not a city, has been historically difficult because of its low tax base, transient student population and landlord opposition to local control and taxation, said Economic & Planning Systems Inc., the California consulting firm that performed the financial study.

The consultants looked at several ways to improve services and provide better leadership for long-neglected Isla Vistans — more than 15,000 people, most of them students, crammed into a half square mile of crowded, run-down neighborhoods next to UCSB.

During the past 15 years, the community has endured two mass killings, most recently the May 2014 rampage by Elliot Rodger.

“How can we turn this around? How can we take this into our own hands?” asked Alice O'Connor, a board member of The Fund for Santa Barbara, the nonprofit group that sponsored the study.

A new community services district would generate between $320,0000 and $512,000 annually by taxing water, sewer, electricity, natural gas and garbage bills in Isla Vista between 5 and 8 percent, the study showed.

Low-income residents and students living in UCSB-owned apartments would be exempt.

At the 8-percent level of taxation — about $40 per resident per year — an estimated $255,000 would be available for new services, after subtracting $257,000 to run the district.

UCSB’s purchase of the Tropicanas could result in the loss of up to $1.7 million yearly in future tax revenues for Santa Barbara County. Click to view larger
UCSB’s purchase of the Tropicanas could result in the loss of up to $1.7 million yearly in future tax revenues for Santa Barbara County. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk file photo)

With a commitment in hand from UCSB for $200,000 more, as promised this summer, Isla Vista would have a total of $455,000 in hand yearly for better parking, building-code enforcement, graffiti abatement, policing and mediation of tenant-landlord disputes.

At the same time, cityhood for Isla Vista, a dream long held by many residents, would be a much bigger financial challenge. Absent the tax-generating hotels and retail base that most cities enjoy, the study found, a new city of Isla Vista would be $3.1 million in the hole yearly.

To make up the difference, it showed, the county would have to transfer more property taxes to Isla Vista than what the community currently generates, but it is not legally required to do so. Alternatively, the new city could levy an additional bedroom tax of $350 yearly on property owners, the study said.

Without new taxes, a city of Isla Vista would collect $5.3 million in existing taxes and fees but would have expenses of $8.4 million, assuming a staff of 15 and contracts for law enforcement, animal control and a city attorney, the study found.

At the same time, two simpler alternatives — an Isla Vista municipal advisory committee and planning commission — would require only the support of the county Board of Supervisors and $3,000 each per year for part-time county staff.

This is familiar ground: Isla Vista formed a municipal advisory committee in 1971 after the local Bank of America was burned down during a Vietnam War-era clash between protestors and the police.

A new community services district would generate between $320,0000 and $512,000 annually by taxing water, sewer, electricity, natural gas and garbage bills in Isla Vista between 5 and 8 percent, the financial study showed. Click to view larger
A new community services district would generate between $320,0000 and $512,000 annually by taxing water, sewer, electricity, natural gas and garbage bills in Isla Vista between 5 and 8 percent, the financial study showed. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

The committee set up the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District, which today continues to provide a measure of local governance, but the committee was dissolved in 1985 when UCSB and the county stopped funding it.

Future development is not likely to raise much tax revenue for Isla Vista. The university’s long-range plan proposes significant growth on campus land next to Isla Vista that is tax-exempt because it belongs to UCSB ​— about 2,000 net new apartments and 5,500 new student beds.

By contrast, Isla Vista is expected to grow by only 640 net new housing units, bringing in only a small amount of new property taxes.

Moreover, when UCSB buys property in Isla Vista, as it did this spring with the purchase of three Tropicana student apartment complexes, the county potentially loses substantial tax revenue. According to the county Auditor-Controller’s office, the sale of the Tropicanas could result in the loss of up to $1.7 million yearly in future tax revenues.

Under a 2010 agreement, UCSB will pay the city or county $280 per year for each student bed located on land that is bought by the university. For the Tropicanas, that would come to only $280,000.

UCSB officials say the Tropicanas will pay property taxes this year, and they say no decision has yet been made regarding taxes for subsequent years.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that county taxpayers will continue to foot much of the bill for Isla Vista, well into the foreseeable future.

From 1991 to 2011, the county spent an average $2.5 million in redevelopment funds yearly in the community, plus $4.5 million in 2012, building sidewalks and improving bus routes and traffic circulation. That funding has since dried up.

As for public services, a 2014 study for UCSB by Economic & Planning Systems found that the county takes in about $5.6 million annually in taxes and fees from Isla Vista but spends about $14.4 million for fire, police, public works and court services there, leaving taxpayers elsewhere in the county to cover an $8.8 million deficit.

Revenues from the proposed utility-user tax and UCSB contributions would provide additional services: they would not close the existing shortfall.

The new financial study cost $65,000 and was paid for by The Fund for Santa Barbara, UCSB, Santa Barbara City College, the county of Santa Barbara, the Isla Vista Community Development Corporation, Isla Vista business owner Jay Freeman, Lanny Ebenstein, director emeritus of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, and crowd funding.

(Full disclosure: This reporter is a donor to The Fund.)

Melinda Burns is a Noozhawk contributing writer.

Isla Vista voters could be voting on a new community services district board as early as June 2016, and a utility user tax in November of the same year. Click to view larger
Isla Vista voters could be voting on a new community services district board as early as June 2016, and a utility user tax in November of the same year. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

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