Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 7:10 pm | Fair 78º


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Pension, Labor Costs Loom as Santa Barbara Council Set to Approve $360 Million Budget

The Santa Barbara City Council is expected to adopt a spending plan next week that includes the major challenge of how to pay for escalating pension and labor costs.

The city has a proposed overall budget for the 2019 fiscal year of $360.6-million budget, which includes a general fund budget of $156.1 million.

Santa Barbara must pay $23.3 million in pension costs for general fund employees in the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1, and that number is expected to reach $40 million by 2025. 

“We look to 2025, citywide, our costs could go up by 75 percent; it’s really going to ramp up for the next seven, eight years,” Finance Director Bob Samario said.  

Some of the city’s largest sources of general fund revenues took a hit or saw slower-than-normal growth in fiscal year 2018.

Property taxes grew by 4.6 percent, but transient occupancy or hotel bed taxes taxes dropped about .04 percent, which the city attributes to the Thomas Fire and the Montecito debris flows. 

Sales taxes fell 1.7 percent this year, which the city also sees as an impact of the disasters. Next year, the city expects sales taxes to increase by only 1.5 percent.

The city has 1,031.65 full-time equivalent employees budgeted for the 2019 fiscal year, which will be three less than the current year due to the city of Goleta taking over management of the branch library on Fairview Avenue.

Goleta is hiring three of the four Santa Barbara Public Library employees. 

Salaries and benefits consume much of the city’s $156.1-million general fund budget. The city spends $100.3 million on salaries and benefits, including workers compensation insurance.

The police and fire department employees account for about half of the city’s general fund expenditures, and a majority of the city’s rising pension costs.

For firefighters, for example, for every $1 a public safety employee earns, the city must pay the California Public Employee Retirement System 52 cents toward that employee's retirement. 

Santa Barbara held budget meetings over the past few weeks to deliberate spending, and among the issues discussed was whether the city should hire a full-time Spanish language translator to communicate with the public and the media during disasters.

The proposed budget included a half-time, hourly position that pays $35,000, but City Council members discussed upping that to a full-time position with benefits, which would cost $80,000 a year.

Acting City Fire Chief Lee Waldron supported the move, saying it would be a help to his staff.

During public comment, resident Lizzie Rodriguez said a dedicated Spanish-translation position is important.

“It may not seem like a priority in the department, but considering that 46 percent of the population in Santa Barbara city is Latino, and 33 percent speak Spanish at home, it should be a priority for our city,” she said.

Rodriguez said Santa Barbara needs to be culturally aware and have trained, certified translators.

She said officials mistranslated key disaster information after the Thomas Fire and before the debris flow. She said she heard someone say, “We are going to be evacuating yesterday.”

Rodriguez added, “When you don't have trained interpreters, it comes out mushy.”

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said she would like to see a full-time position.

“When you are talking about people's lives and disasters, I just think we owe it to 50 percent of our population to have a dedicated staff person,” Sneddon said. 

She noted that in the Spanish-speaking community, bilingual children were translating disaster information to their parents and family members, and that it shouldn't be the job of a child, considering the sensitive nature of the content. 

That budget item, and the rest, will be decided in next Tuesday's vote. 

In a separate matter, Mayor Cathy Murillo said she’d like to see more of a non-sworn community volunteer presence on State Street, particularly on the 400 and 500 blocks, during the evening to address the concerns of bar and nightclub owners.

“I know our budget is so tight this year, but that would be on my wish list for the future,” Murillo said.

“There’s a lot of young people out there in the evenings and our constant street people. If there’s a way to help improve our quality of life on State Street in the evenings through community policing efforts, it would be economical and effective.”

Separate from the general fund, the city has set aside $22 million for capital expenditures from voter-approved Measure C money. 

About $17.1 million will go toward streets and infrastructure, while some $2 million will be directed at the new police station, still at an unidentified site.

The city’s reserve fund dipped to a low of $17 million in 2009 and has bounced back to a projected $32 million for the 2019 year, according to the proposed budget.

The City Council will vote on the proposed budget at its Tuesday meeting, at 2 p.m. at the City Hall Council Chambers, at 735 Anacapa St. 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina 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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