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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 7:38 pm | Fair 57º


Randy Alcorn: A Few Taxing Questions About Santa Barbara’s Rough Roads

The Santa Barbara City Council is considering a ballot measure that, if passed by voters in November, would increase the city’s sales tax rate by 1 percent to 8.75 percent.

The city’s justification for the increase is that the expected $22 million in new annual revenue would help address its neglected and rapidly dilapidating infrastructure — a condition the city has determined will require $546 million over 20 years to remedy.

Meanwhile, the State of California will soon significantly increase gasoline taxes and car registration fees to repair the state’s deteriorating highways.

Santa Barbara residents and all Californians have not been stingy about paying taxes. Indeed, they are the highest taxed population in America.

Consider all the state and local taxes Californians pay: income tax, sales tax, property tax, fuel tax, tobacco tax, utility taxes, bond reimbursements and more. Then there are the license fees that must be paid to do just about anything from operating a lemonade stand to fishing.

Before Santa Barbara voters agree to pile yet another tax onto the burden they already bear, it would be prudent for them to ask a few questions and carefully consider the answers.

How does it come about that the highest taxed population in the country must endure roads resembling those in the Gaza Strip? Some roadways are so cratered and crumbling they look like they’ve been targets of air strikes.

How is it that a city blessed with more than 1,000 municipal employees — which is as many as double the employees other California cities of similar size have — cannot maintain its streets in good repair? How does Santa Barbara’s bonanza of bureaucrats benefit city residents?

How is tax money being spent by the city and how are spending priorities determined?

If the city’s request for increasing the sales tax is to repair the streets, why is there no legally binding requirement that those additional taxes be dedicated to that purpose? As proposed now, those taxes would just be dumped into the city’s General Fund — the mother of all slush funds — and could be spent as the city sees fit.

In the recent past, other local sales tax increases, in particular the county’s quarter percent increase, promised to repair roads but, obviously, has not yielded that result. That streets and thoroughfares have been allowed to fall into such poor condition even as the taxpayers’ burden only gets heavier is jarring witness to government’s slippery financial management.

If general financial accounting, with its accruals, reversals, deferrals, depreciation, etc. is arcane to the layman, government accounting (fund accounting) is alchemy. It is like following a pea and shell game, with money moving about from bucket to bucket. And, while the city’s budgets can be found online, the presentation does not facilitate a clear and easy understanding for most folks.

Santa Barbara residents, as well as conscientious City Council members, should demand to see a straightforward, clearly readable financial report comparing the city’s revenues and expenditures by department and by major expense category over the past 30 years — 1987, 1997, 2007 and 2017.

It might prove enlightening to see how the percentage of money spent in the various categories has changed. For instance, over the years, how does the percentage of money dedicated to maintaining infrastructure compare to the money dedicated to staff compensation, especially pensions?

Certainly, the rate of inflation must be factored into a 30-years analysis. Construction materials have become pricier over the past 30 years — another reason not to let repairs backlog.

Regardless of inflation, many costs can be controlled by competent management — chief among those costs is staffing and compensation. While the private sector has diligently controlled costs while increasing productivity, government hasn’t always been similarly diligent.

Like just about everything else in America’s economic jungle, government has become another profit center for certain groups of people to use as a vehicle to enrich themselves. Exploitation of taxpayers is easier to pull off if those taxpayers can be misled and confused about public finances and what are truly necessary or controllable costs.

Does the city really need to compensate public employees so lavishly? Would there be no competent applicants for city jobs if total compensation were, say, 10 percent less? Do staffing levels have to be so comparatively high?

Why do the city’s contractors have to pay their employees at a level someone has determined is a “living wage” when those employees will and do work for less on non-city jobs?

Why does nearly every decision confronting the city require an expensive outside study? How can the city be willing to spend money to paint blue flood lines on its streets and to place odd art objects along them but not have money enough to keep those streets in good repair?

What is more important to Santa Barbara’s residents, good roads or questionable and unnecessary spending?

Let’s see that report. And, if Santa Barbara residents find that it justifies another tax increase to fix their roads, then they should vote yes. If not, they should vote no and demand the city find the money in one of its many buckets — and fix the damn roads now.

— 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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