Restaurants will have to pay a $2-per-square-foot fee for outdoor dining space, the Santa Barbara City Council decided Tuesday, in a surprising reversal from its stance in January.
Originally, the council considered a range of $3 to $10 per square foot for space, with most business owners paying about $5. However, the council threw that out the window on Tuesday in favor of a $2 flat fee beginning in May.
The vote was 5-1-1. Members Alejandra Gutierrez, Oscar Gutierrez, Mike Jordan, Meagan Harmon and Kristen Sneddon voted in favor of the $2 fee, while Mayor Randy Rowse opposed it, believing it should be higher. Councilman Eric Friedman abstained.
Restaurant owners and their supporters organized and bombarded the City Council with emails before the meeting, urging the council to eliminate or reduce the outdoor dining fee.
The strategy worked, but Rowse expressed frustration with his colleagues for waffling.
“If we are going to flood the zone with emails, and that’s how we are going to do business, I don’t even know why we have staff reports and do deliberations,” Rowse said.
He had support in words from Friedman, who said he abstained because he wanted to know the financial impact of lowering the fees to $2.
Changing the rules at this late stage, he said, was bad government in action.
“I just want to say I am disappointed in the council,” Friedman said. “Honestly, I feel like we have wasted a lot of time.”
The council voted 4-2 on Jan. 13 in favor of a “variable design,” under which rates for outdoor dining would vary based on the sizes and designs of the structures.
At the time, Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez supported the higher fees and said, “We spent 2½ hours, and we’re just going to go back and postpone? We have to do something with the downtown because it’s a mess and it is just getting worse.”
On Tuesday, however, she changed her tune.
“I am going to try to be very nice here … ,” she said. “It is frustrating to hear that some of my colleagues are frustrated that I did this, but I think it is fair and I think we have done it in other items. This is not the only item that the city has gone back and forth.”
She said the change in position reflects the fact that she and the council listen to the community. She said she takes “full responsibility” for creating this “mess” by asking that the council reconsider the matter.
“I really think it’s fair that we listen to those who are on State Street on a daily basis,” Gutierrez said.
The city wanted to charge restaurants for outdoor dining to help pay for the cost of cleanup.
City staff on Tuesday presented numbers that showed the cost to maintain the promenade at about $515,000 in fiscal year 2023 and $672,976 in fiscal year 2025.
City Administrator Rebecca Bjork said the city most likely will pull from its Measure C funds now to help pay for State Street cleanup. Measure C was a ballot initiative approved by Santa Barbara voters to help pay for streets and infrastructure repairs.
Rowse said he was bothered by this shift in direction.
“What I don’t understand is how we have had this sudden reversal,” he said. “This sudden lack of support for what staff has done. This sudden lack of support for the general fund, which we are going to be struggling with pretty soon. And to allow these businesses to do something that nobody else gets to do.”
Rowse said government was subsidizing private business that have outdoor dining, but that other businesses don’t enjoy the same benefit.
“I really think we backpedaled for anecdotal reasons, not for factual reasons,” Rowse said.
Harmon said she was surprised at the council shift in direction.
She has been consistent in never supporting the outdoor dining fees. She suggested the $2 amount as a compromise to help with the city budget, but not drive out businesses.
“I continue to believe that we are doing State Street a disservice if we implement a rate structure as high as envisaged here,” Harmon said. “If we put in a rate structure this high, it is sort of a backhanded way of saying we don’t want these on the street.”