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Santa Barbara Reviews Solutions to Mounting Infrastructure Maintenance Backlog

Like much of the rest of the country, Santa Barbara is facing a growing backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance.

The scope of the problem, along with a suite of potential solutions the city has been studying, were presented Tuesday evening for the City Council’s consideration.

According to Public Works Director Rebecca Bjork, the annual deferred maintenance costs for all of the city’s capital infrastructure is $27 million.

Over a 20-year period, she said, unfunded infrastructure needs come out to $546 million.

Broken down, the annual costs of the largest needs include $10 million for maintaining existing street pavement, $5.5 million to rehabilitate major city facilities, and $6.5 million to finance a new police station.

Among other pressing issues, the current police headquarters at 215 E. Figueroa St. needs to be replaced, Bjork said.

“It is functionally difficult to use, it was built in 1950 for a much smaller police force, but most importantly, it doesn’t meet seismic safety standards,” she told the council.

Other infrastructure increasingly in need of attention include sidewalks, storm drains, bridges, streetlights and parks and recreation.

The longer road needs are left unattended, Bjork said, the more the costs of maintaining and rehabilitating them multiply.

The accumulation of cracks and potholes, for instance, has side effects, such as the intrusion of water into the roads, which triggers its own problems.

Traffic-signal needs are a streets-funding priority, Bjork added, due to the safety issues that can result from their failure.

Right now, she said, $2 million a year goes toward streets.

Street-related infrastructure is currently funded by Measure A money and state funding, which is based in large part on fuel taxes.

Those taxes, however, have not increased since 1993, even as cars become more fuel efficient, Finance Director Robert Samario said.

One funding solution, he said, is to borrow against Measure A funds, committing future transportation infrastructure money to specific, present needs.

Samario said that the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments had told the city that it could tentatively participate in a large bond sale it’s planning for 2017 to help fund its Highway 101 widening project.

Santa Barbara, Samario said, would likely be able to secure its own 10-year repayment period.

City finance staff have also examined a number of tax options to boost revenues, and settled on a sales-tax increase as the best approach.

Polling done over a year ago showed Santa Barbarans were receptive to a half-percent sales-tax increase, City Administrator Paul Casey said.

The current county sales tax is 8 percent, which will lower to 7.75 percent in January when a temporary state increase expires.

“It’s really when you get to the 1 percent (increase) do you fully fund the needs that are presented on an annual basis,” Samario said.

A quarter-percent increase in the sales tax, he noted, would yield about $5.5 million a year. A few councilmembers expressed support for the full 1-percent hike.

“The scale of this problem is so big in comparison to the variety of different funding options that there really isn’t any other choice but to pursue the sales tax measure,” said Councilman Gregg Hart.

Other potential tax measures, he said, are “like having a bleeding artery and looking for a Band-Aid as a solution.”

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss recommended adding a sunset date to a tax increase, which would be hammered out over the first half of 2017 and could be placed on next November’s ballot.

“I don’t see another way to solve it,” Councilman Randy Rowse said. “I think we need to go for it.”

The council directed city staff to explore the feasibility of both the sales-tax option and the SBCAG bond option.

An important consideration with a ballot measure, Mayor Helene Schneider said, is demonstrating to the community that the city has already done its due diligence in funding infrastructure.

“I think our City Council is very well respected, and our city is well run,” added Councilwoman Cathy Murillo. “And that’s the foundation of convincing the voters to support us for the sales-tax increase.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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