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Santa Barbara’s Measure C Puts 1-Percent Sales Tax Increase to Voters

City's initiative on Nov. 7 ballot would increase sales tax rate to 8.75 percent, which would bring in an additional $22 million a year

Santa Barbara’s Measure C proposes increasing the sales tax rate to 8.75 percent. The City Council said funding would fund infrastructure projects including replacing the seismically-unsafe police station at 215 E. Figueroa St. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara’s Measure C proposes increasing the sales tax rate to 8.75 percent. The City Council said funding would fund infrastructure projects including replacing the seismically-unsafe police station at 215 E. Figueroa St.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara residents will select a new mayor and three City Council members in the November election, but the results of the proposed sales tax increase could have the biggest impact on people’s pocketbooks.

Measure C proposes a 1-cent sales tax increase, which would raise the rate in the city from 7.75 percent to 8.75 percent if approved by a majority of voters (50 percent, plus one).

The city hopes to generate $22 million annually through the tax increase. 

Santa Barbara is facing $546 million worth of unfunded infrastructure projects in the next 20 years, including the estimated $80-million construction cost for a new police headquarters.

City officials say the city lost $100 million in funding over the last five years due to the end of the Redevelopment Agency, which used dedicated tax dollars to pay for renovation and infrastructure improvement projects.

Santa Barbara's RDA contributed about $20 million per year in funding, and was eliminated by the state in 2013, years before its 2018 expiration date. 

When the City Council put the measure on the ballot, members said money would go toward a variety of public services, including infrastructure and maintenance needs like repairing streets and sidewalks, seismic retrofit for buildings, and upgrading storm drains.

According to the ballot measure, the money would pay for public safety response, repair infrastructure, and provide resources to community partners to address homelessness, including mental health, substance abuse treatment services and job training.

The money, however, has no legal anchor; it technically could be spent on anything.

The city opted to go for a general tax, which only requires a simple majority of voter approval to pass. If the money were tied a specific project or program, the threshold for passage would be 66.7 percent, a much greater and more difficult percentage to reach.

The measure also has no sunset date.

Everyone on the City Council, except Councilman Frank Hotchkiss, supports the tax measure.

Four of the five mayoral candidates also support the proposed sales tax increase — Hal Conklin, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Harwood "Bendy" White — and Hotchkiss opposes it.

Measure C also has widespread support from organizations, including the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party and the Santa Barbara Police Officers and Firefighters Associations. The Yes on C campaign has raised $31,000 in support of the measure.

Among the donors in support of the tax measure are retired city administrator Jim Armstrong, MarBorg Industries, the Service Employees International Union Local 620, and the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians, which gave $10,000.

City officials said the sales tax increase doesn’t apply to basic purchases such as groceries and prescription drugs, and tourists pay an estimated 40 percent of city sales tax revenues.

Opponents of the sales tax increase include the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association and City Watch, a government watchdog organization. 

“I think it is bad policy,” said Tom Widroe, president of City Watch. “It could have been and should have been a specific tax. A specific tax enumerates exactly what you spend the money on.”

Widroe worries that the money from the measure, under future city councils, could be used on things such as Santa Barbara’s desalination plant or pensions.

“You get further and further away from the date that people voted on it and it gets easier and easier to spend it on something else,” Widroe said.

Widroe said a higher sales tax, at a time when State Street retail is suffering, doesn't make sense.

"This is a regressive tax," Widroe said. "Those who shoulder it are the ones who can least afford it."

The Measure C ballot language is as follows: 

"To maintain essential services and repair critical infrastructure including:

» Police, fire, and 911 emergency medical response;

» local streets, potholes, bridges and storm drains;

» neighborhood fire stations/public safety infrastructure;

» parks, youth/senior services;

» address homelessness;

» help retain local businesses;

» support other general services;

shall the City of Santa Barbara enact a one-cent sales tax providing approximately 22 million dollars annually unless ended by voters; requiring audits, citizens oversight, public disclosure of spending, and all funds used locally?"

October 23 is the last day to register to vote for the Nov. 7 election, according to the City Clerk's Office.

Eight candidates are running for the three City Council seats and five people are running for mayor

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina 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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