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Saturday, March 23 , 2019, 2:12 am | Fair 50º


Santa Barbara Sees Bright Future Amid Water, Revenue & Infrastructure Challenges

Mayor Helene Schneider’s State of the City address recapped the last year’s changes and charted out the rest of 2017

Despite moderate challenges related to city revenues, homelessness and drought, Mayor Helene Schneider outlined an optimistic course for the city’s future at Wednesday’s State of the City address. Click to view larger
Despite moderate challenges related to city revenues, homelessness and drought, Mayor Helene Schneider outlined an optimistic course for the city’s future at Wednesday’s State of the City address.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Despite moderate challenges related to water, municipal revenues, homelessness and infrastructure, Mayor Helene Schneider in her State of the City program laid out an optimistic vision of Santa Barbara based around diversified water supplies, successful policing programs, new development and the city’s arts and culture scene.

Schneider, who finishes up her second and final term this year, made the annual address with City Administrator Paul Casey on Wednesday at the city’s Lobero Theatre downtown.

Santa Barbara’s 49th mayor argued that local governments must become more self-reliant in the face of dwindling state and federal support.

“No matter how you voted or whether you support recent actions at the federal level, I think everyone can agree that we are in a new era, and these are uncertain times for local government,” she told the crowd of officials, business and nonprofit leaders and members of the public.

She implied that the new presidential administration posed an existential threat to many community programs, but expressed hope that the federal government would renew support for local infrastructure needs.

In a nod to California’s hardening opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Schneider re-asserted the Police Department’s stance that local law enforcement will not be asking residents they encounter for their immigration status or aiding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its operations, which drew applause.

The mayor also reiterated that the drought was not over despite the deluge of much-needed rain the county has received this winter.

As groundwater supplies dry up, the city’s desalination plant, expected to be operational this spring, is currently testing seawater, and Lake Cachuma is now half full, which is a major supply for the city and other water agencies. 

Schneider boasted that Santa Barbara’s conservation rate, which has hovered above 30 percent, is one of the best in the state, and that, combined with a more diversified water-supply portfolio, has put the city in a good position to tackle the next drought.

On the energy and sustainability front, the mayor reported that the city is examining switching to a community-choice energy model, preparing to implement a ride-sharing program and has received money for projects in its recently completed Bicycle Master Plan.

The Santa Barbara Airport additionally reported that it has reversed a decline in passenger traffic and has started flying to Dallas.

City Administrator Paul Casey said the city’s financial challenges revolve around increasing employee benefits and pensions and mounting infrastructure needs. Click to view larger
City Administrator Paul Casey said the city’s financial challenges revolve around increasing employee benefits and pensions and mounting infrastructure needs. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Among the city’s recently completed undertakings are crosswalk and intersection improvements, a new roundabout at the junction of Cliff Drive and Las Positas Road, the installation of an unused-medication disposal bin at police headquarters, and the expansion of the city’s collection of open spaces.

City Hall is also in the midst of implementing, tweaking or developing a number of wide-ranging and contentious ordinances.

A task force is searching for more day-time parking spots in private lots for RV owners who will soon no longer be allowed to park on city streets.

The City Council is also working through potential additional restrictions on where people can smoke, as well as new regulations on merchants who sell alcohol to be consumed outside their premises.

On Tuesday, the council began exploring options for new “tenant-protection measures” like rent control and just-cause evictions, and another task force is examining tweaks to the complex and contentious Average Unit-Size Density Incentive housing program.

City Hall is also finalizing a complete overhaul of its decades-old zoning ordinance, which lays out land-use regulations.

After November’s statewide legalization of recreational marijuana, Santa Barbara placed a temporary moratorium on recreational pot businesses, and voters approved a 20-percent tax on the gross receipts of marijuana businesses.

An expanded focus on community and restorative policing practices has lowered the city’s crime rates, Schneider said.

The policing approach, combined with work by the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), has reduced the number of homeless in the city by 12 percent over the last two years, according to C3H data.

In his overview of the city’s financial status, Casey explained that the previous optimistic outlook has to be tempered a bit, though the city remains in good shape, with a $300 million operating budget, over 1,000 full-time employees and 500 part timers.

“The General Fund is in decent financial shape,” Casey said. “Revenues have been strong since 2010, but we’re seeing some softening in a number of key areas over the past year.

“We’re a leaner organization than we were 10 years ago,” he added. “But while we’ve restored a number of key services that were cut during the recession, there are some services that are not back to pre-recession levels.”

Like Santa Barbara County and many other governments, the city is facing mounting costs related to employee health insurance and pensions and a growing backlog of infrastructure maintenance work.

“We do not have enough revenue to meet our infrastructure needs going forward,” Casey said. “We need to find a new source of revenue.”

City officials are currently looking at an increase in the local sales tax, a solution approved by a number of other California cities in the same boat.

In need of the most attention are roads — which officials consistently point out become more expensive to fix and maintain the longer they’re left to deteriorate — and a new police station.

The current one at 215 E. Figueroa St. is too small, does not meet certain accessibility standards and is not up to seismic standards, city officials say. 

Despite an uptick in commercial vacancies along State Street, including the impending closing of the 141,000-square-foot Macy’s in the Paseo Nuevo shopping center, Schneider expressed optimism over downtown’s future.

Downtown Santa Barbara has commissioned a study exploring how to improve the commercial corridor’s retail mix, and a bevy of public and private projects, like the recent opening of MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, are improving city life, the mayor contended.

“If we take a step back, we’re in the midst of a healthy renewal of the entire downtown waterfront area,” she said.

Completed and in-progress projects in the area include Southern California Edison’s upgrading the local electricity-distribution system, the Cabrillo Boulevard bridge replacement project, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s major renovations, the upcoming Hotel Californian and a slew of proposed residential and mixed-use developments.

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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