Santa Barbara officials are moving toward a sales-tax increase as their primary tool in addressing the city’s mounting infrastructure needs.
The city will likely begin gauging public opinion next month on the nature of a sales-tax increase that, depending on the amount, would help fund maintenance needs for streets, sidewalks, parks, storm drains, traffic lights and more.
On Tuesday, the City Council got the ball rolling by voting to negotiate a contract with a polling firm to conduct a survey and convene focus groups.
The city began dissecting the issue more closely last year, especially in regard to the quality and needs of its streets. It has had to squeeze other parts of its budget in order to perform triage on its infrastructure needs.
The expiration of a temporary state sales tax increase along with decreasing revenues from the gas tax have exacerbated the funding situation.
City engineer Brian D’Amour put the next 20 years’ unfunded infrastructure needs at $546 million.
A few council members noted that infrastructure upkeep was especially important given Santa Barbara’s reputation as a destination city and its constant influx of tourists.
Most of the handful of public commenters voiced their support for a sales-tax increase, calling the council’s willingness to move forward with it “an act of political courage.”
“I think we have to pay for what we use,” said Beebe Longstreet of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
City Finance Director Robert Samario said each quarter-cent increase in the sales tax would bring in around $5.5 million a year.
A quarter-cent increase would pretty much cover streets needs, he said. A half-cent increase could additionally cover a new Police Department headquarters, and a three-quarter-cent or 1-cent increase could cover much more, including major facilities renewals and parks and recreation needs.
Fifty-six of 66 sales tax measures proposed throughout the state in June and November of 2016 passed, Samario noted.
Nina Johnson, a senior assistant to the city administrator, said a 2014 poll of Santa Barbarans found 64 percent of residents receptive to an increase, though a new political climate warrants a new poll.
Johnson said focus groups gauging the public’s infrastructure priorities could start in February, followed by polling in English and Spanish in March and presentation of the results in April.
If a measure is placed on a future ballot, it would require a simple majority to pass.
“It’s going to be really important for people who agree to this tax that the money goes where we say it’s going to go,” said Councilman Randy Rowse.
Dissenting in the 6-1 vote was Councilman Jason Dominguez, who said the city should take more time to explore ways to make new infrastructure funding less burdensome on lower-income residents.
Because a sales tax is inherently regressive, he said, supplementary revenue streams like a small bump in the transient-occupancy tax, which would typically be paid for by visitors to the city, could alleviate some of that burden.
“Unfortunately, because of circumstances, it will take an exotic source of financing,” Rowse said.
“It’s not going to come out of operations for us to be able to rebuild, retune, re-equip this city. We’re going to need to find other resources. And this seems to be one of the most expeditious ways to do it.”
The state of city roads has been a primary focus of the city’s infrastructure funding talks. D’Amour said the city has been spending $2 million a year on streets, when around $10 million a year is needed for pavement maintenance.
January’s heavy rains only exacerbated road degradation, and the longer streets aren’t addressed, the more expensive their upkeep becomes, he added.
Perhaps the most pressing infrastructure project for the city, however, is a new police headquarters.
The current 28,000-square-foot building at 215 E. Figueroa St., built in 1959 when the department had fewer than half its present-day personnel, does not meet modern seismic and accessibility standards, has outdated plumbing and electrical systems and faces serious space constraints.
A few police department functions, like its 9-1-1 call center, are housed in other locations. Many department divisions’ work spaces are in an adjacent building on Anapamu St., the lease for which the council extended for five more years on Tuesday.
“We’ve had issues with security, with losing prisoners, issues with evidence and cross-contamination,” said police Sgt. Mike McGrew. “We’ve had issues with bringing sexual assault survivors and child molestation victims and such into a comfortable environment.”
D’Amour put the cost of a completely revamped headquarters on Figueroa Street at $80 million, plus $50 million in interest.
He added that the city doesn’t believe the current building is at risk for “catastrophic failure” in the event of a disaster, but emphasized that as an “essential facility,” it must be operational during a crisis.
A new station on site would require a temporary relocation of the police department, D’Amour said. The city could also explore finding a new location in the city for the Police Department, he said.