Friday, November 16 , 2018, 1:30 pm | Fair 69º

 
 
 
 

Randy Alcorn: About Santa Barbara’s Proposed Sales Tax Increase? Not So Fast!

The Santa Barbara City Council has voted 5-2 to ask voters this November to approve a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax. Councilmen Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse dissented. They may both need a hug.

Although a poll commissioned by the City of Santa Barbara extrapolates that a majority of voters would approve the sales tax increase for street repairs, the city isn’t taking any chances, and last week sent out a colorful glossy mailer that presents its case for the increase.

The city primarily blames its chronic lack of funds for infrastructure maintenance on the State of California, which has cut funding to cities so it can balance its bloated budgets.

Additionally, the city reminds residents that 10 years ago a citizen task force recommended a local sales tax increase to maintain the city’s infrastructure. There was none. Consequently, the city says it has been struggling to repair the streets while having to also maintain essential public safety services — notably police, fire and emergency response.

The city presents a chart showing how much higher sales tax rates are in 10 other California cities. The implication being that Santa Barbara taxpayers have been under-taxed and that explains the city’s failure to maintain our infrastructure.

Not so fast.

Certainly, the cut in state funding puts pressure on municipal budgets, but before we all rush to the polls to increase our taxes let’s consider the expenditures side of Santa Barbara’s budget.

How diligent has the city — i.e. elected officials and professional administrators — been in managing expenditures? Let’s compare expenditures with other cities. Since payroll is typically the single largest expense cities incur let’s compare that.

Using data from Transparent California, we develop two simple metrics to compare the payroll cost and staffing levels of Santa Barbara with 27 other California cities, including all 10 that the city had selected for its sales tax comparison chart. Our metrics are city employees per 1,000 residents and total cost of city employees per 1,000 residents.

Our sample of 27 cities include coastal cities of comparable size with Santa Barbara, as well as larger cities, smaller cities, interior cities, agricultural areas and touristy areas. While a more detailed comparison of individual complexities might explain some of the differences, our per-1,000-residents metrics reveal that only three of the cities have higher staffing levels than Santa Barbara, and seven have higher payroll costs.

The City of Santa Barbara spends about 40 percent of its total payroll on two departments, police and fire. That’s not surprising considering that the average cost of police officers, including regular pay, overtime and benefits is more than $165,000 annually.

About 70 percent of payroll cost is paid out in regular pay and overtime. The remainder is mostly benefits, particularly health insurance.

And then there is the huge, looming pension liability for public employees, many of whom can and do retire relatively young with near full pay for life.

Many police officers cost us well over $200,000 per year. One sergeant has cost taxpayers more than $360,000 per year while the average cost of 11 of his fellow sergeants is $222,000. Then there are the police captains, lieutenants and other sergeants who are well above six figures.

Firefighters are just as costly. The average cost of SBFD’s 11 top-paid fire captains is $241,000, while that of the top four fire chiefs is $275,000. You can see all the details on the transparentcalifornia.com website.

So, tell us again, why does the city have a lack of money to maintain our streets?

There is valid reason to question the necessity of increased taxes to provide fundamental services to residents.

The city has an annual infrastructure maintenance funding shortfall of around $22 million. The annual average cost of a city employee is more than $60,000. If staffing were reduced by 17 percent, Santa Barbara would still have a relatively high staffing level (exceeded by only four of the 27 cities), but could free up $22 million for infrastructure maintenance — without raising taxes.

Governments prefer to balance budgets with revenues rather than by adjusting expenditures. Don’t we all?

Governments’ appeals for tax increases typically involve promises to address glaringly neglected issues and or implied threats to public safety if tax increases are rejected.

Santa Barbara is no exception. City officials are focusing on the revenue side of the budget equation while being somewhat disingenuous about expenditures.

In its appeal to voters, the city cleverly emphasizes infrastructure repairs because that has become such an obvious, palpable need. Justifying a tax increase for fixing the streets is an easier sell than it is for increasing the pay of city employees.

However, in smaller print on the mailer the city lists seven priorities for applying funds from the proposed sales tax increase. Infrastructure repair is No. 2 on the priority list, behind police, fire and emergency medical response.

And although the mailer tells us there will be strict accountability of how the funds will be spent, there is no legal obligation for the city to apply most or any of the new revenues to fixing streets.

In the recent past, voters have approved tax increases for infrastructure maintenance — e.g. Measures D and A — but judging from the condition of our streets we have to ask what happened to that money?

Exploitive greed is found in every sector of the economy, including government. Enabled by complicit or pusillanimous politicians, public employee unions, particularly public safety employee unions, have been allowed to gorge on taxpayer money.

Only two things can stop the excess: bankruptcy, as has befallen several California cities, or taxpayers saying “no more.”

Well, fellow Santa Barbarans, you can say “no more” by refusing to give more money to profligate government, and by supporting candidates who will carefully manage our tax money and stand up to extortionate employee unions.

Or, you can vote for another tax increase and hope the potholes get filled before you need another front-end alignment or new tires — which will cost you 1 percent more if purchased in Santa Barbara.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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