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Local News

Isla Vista Community Considers Self-Governance Options

Assemblyman Das Williams introduces bill that could create a community services district following recommendation of UCSB trustee committee report

A lot seemed at stake as a room full of Isla Vista stakeholders nervously stared at each other across a circle of mismatched office chairs, furniture left inside a Santa Barbara County-owned building in the heart of the unincorporated area.

Galvanizing was how some of the dozens gathered on a recent evening described the sense of urgency compelling them into the all-too-familiar discussion.

Plagued by riots, an alleged gang rape and a mass shooting last school year, the densely populated community of about 23,000 living on less than one square mile adjacent to UC Santa Barbara needed a change, a voice and a plan.

The tale of a city that’s not actually a city seemed a tired storyline.

Assemblyman Das Williams called them all together to devise a strategy, pinning the dialogue to the Assembly Bill 3 he introduced earlier this month to establish an Isla Vista Community Services District — the terms of which were still up for interpretation.

He took the idea from a report of the UCSB Foundation Trustee’s Advisory Committee on Isla Vista Strategies, and he wanted the community mostly made up of homeowners, low-income renters and college students to help him run with it.

So far, the idea has been met with skepticism from the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission and others who remember locals voting down Isla Vista cityhood attempts in 1972, 1975 and 1983.

The uphill battle of establishing self-governance isn’t lost on Williams, who grew up in Isla Vista and was in elementary school during the failed tries.

Organizers see a glimmer of hope this time around, however, since locals could pick what powers a community services district has, ranging from infrastructure and police services to the ability to levy utility-user taxes.

***

The question of self-governance comes down to numbers for Mark Linehan, one of the UCSB trustees and a member of the committee that started meeting in May and came up with two dozen recommendations to improve viability and safety in Isla Vista.

The community is 5,000 residents shy of 28,000, the average California city size, he said.

Nearby (and similarly sized) Goleta has five representatives for its residents on the City Council, but Isla Vista has only one: Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr.

Linehan says it’s more like a third of one person, since Farr also represents the Santa Ynez Valley.

Isla Vista is one of the largest urban communities in the state not governed as a city, complicated by the fact that just 48 of an estimated 923 total parcels — about 5 percent — are owned by those living there. The rest are students or families renting homes and apartments.

The trustee committee recommended Isla Vista form its own CSD, which could have authority over infrastructure, utilities, police services, parks and recreation, cultural facilities, fire, security and roads — basically everything but land-use planning.

Many of those services are now provided by county agencies, including the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department. An elected board of the Isla Vista Recreation & Parks District, which was created in 1972, also takes on some potential CSD tasks.

“Counties are not designed to run cities,” Linehan told Noozhawk. “There have been so many failed attempts at self-governance in Isla Vista. I was certainly thrilled that Das took the recommendation and decided to run with it.”

At the recent meeting, stakeholders wrestled with what a community services district should look like.

Williams outlined a history, explaining that LAFCO and landlords have opposed attempts to annex or make Isla Vista a city out of fear of property-tax increases and rent control.

Money was another barrier and still is.

Isla Vista was hit hard when the state dissolved its redevelopment agencies. Over 22 years, the Isla Vista RDA generated more than $40 million in revenue to fund infrastructure projects and affordable housing, according a County Auditor-Controller report.

Representing about 6 percent of county population, Isla Vista generated approximately $1.5 million in revenue in 2001 — after deducting tax increment allocated to redevelopment — but cost the county about $2.4 million to serve, the report showed.

Williams said a CSD could be made up of elected or appointed representatives or both. The board could range from five to nine members.

“I felt like, given all the public meetings and given the trustee report, it was important for me to introduce legislation to continue the momentum that’s happening in the community,” he told stakeholders. “A CSD attempts to do less and could allow focus on areas needing additional services.

"I would argue that we have to put in a structure during this ‘Kumbaya’ moment when we’re all motivated to work closer together. We want a structure that will work even if there is less unity in the community.”

***

While any unincorporated area can register a standard CSD, which allows locals to vote on property-tax increases, the legislative process puts a utility-users tax on the table.

Property-tax increases won’t provide a big enough funding boost, since so many residents rent, but locals voting to tax themselves on the amount of utilities they use could.

Based on a utility-users tax model the city of Santa Barbara uses, which generates approximately $168 per capita, Isla Vista could generate approximately $3.5 million a year for services, according to the Auditor-Controller's report.

Having a CSD take on City Council functions worried one resident present at Williams’ meeting.

Isla Vista Recreation & Parks District General Manager Rodney Gould appeared interested — if not supportive — of the idea, but Williams said he wasn’t sure what would happen to the parks district if a CSD was created.

“The real importance of local governance in Isla Vista is can you provide more services?” Williams said. “Can all the residents of I.V. collectively determine their future? That has become more important than whether we can call ourselves a city.”

Farr, who was also present, emphasized that a CSD is driven by what powers locals grant it, some of which wouldn’t need to immediately be activated.

“Right now you have a county that’s interested and concerned and wants to do things,” she said.

Although supportive of self-governance, Farr worried about stable funding in a community with such a transient, low-income population.

Some in attendance argued services were already good enough.

“We don’t want to pay more money and not get an improvement,” a longtime resident said. “We’re not a rich community.”

***

If UCSB senior Ali Guthy hears the word “transient” to describe Isla Vista residents one more time, she isn’t sure what she’ll do.

Yes, college students live in Isla Vista for just four years or so, the Associated Students president said. 

Yes, it would be impractical for students to serve four-year terms on a CSD board composed of longtime residents, university officials or other vested parties.

As a student leader, and as someone who sat on the trustee committee, Guthy thinks a CSD could empower the community at a time when entities are re-evaluating roles.

“I understand it,” she said, but “we make up the majority of it. We make it our home for four years. I think a lot of students are aware (these) conversations are happening. Clearly it’s challenging because we’ve tried to do it before.

“Does this report say anything we didn’t already know? No. What this report does is say 20 years later, there’s still a problem. That’s not good. It’s just the hope that the next generation will continue that plan.”

The university has assigned a task force to monitor the independent committee’s recommendations, and LAFCO has created an ad hoc committee to keep tabs on Assembly Bill 3.

Williams told stakeholders the bill wouldn’t be ready until at least March, leaving time for more community meetings and for locals to think about what they want a CSD to do.

Good thing, since the consensus of the first meeting was that more information was needed.

“This is homework for next time,” Williams said.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff 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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