Santa Barbara city voters will consider a 1-percent sales-tax increase in November, which if approved would push the rate to 8.75 percent and aim to fund infrastructure maintenance.
The City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to put the general tax on the ballot; it would need a simple majority of voter approval (50 percent plus one) to pass.
Revenues from a general tax can’t be earmarked for a specific project or put into a special fund, but can be used for any general government services, according to City Attorney Ariel Calonne.
The council could pass an advisory measure or project priority list, but it can’t bind its successors to either one, Calonne said.
“This year the council may feel strongly about Thousand Steps and Milpas, a council in eight years may feel strongly about the Westside Community Center and the Douglas Family Preserve,” he said.
City Engineer Brian D’Amour said the city’s roads are the greatest asset and the greatest unfunded infrastructure need, as the pavement condition has decreased since 2004 – mostly because of inadequate maintenance funding.
“We’re basically treating the most traveled roads that are in the worst condition first, and we’re not able to get to the residential areas,” he said.
D’Amour mentioned a laundry list of projects that might be funded by sales-tax revenues, including debt service on a bond to fund construction of a new police headquarters building.
Finance Director Bob Samario said the debt service for that $70-million to $80-million project would be about $8 million a year, for 20 years.
Other projects mentioned at Tuesday’s meeting included replacing two city fire stations (No. 7 at 2411 Stanwood Dr. and No. 3 at 415 E. Sola St.), renovating the Thousand Steps, making sidewalk repairs and widening sidewalks in the Milpas Street commercial corridor, maintenance for the State Street brick sidewalks, and leveraging state grant funding for renovation projects.
Nina Johnson, who works in City Administrator Paul Casey’s office, said the city has an unfunded infrastructure need of $25 million per year for existing assets. The proposed 1-percent sales-tax increase would generate an estimated $22 million per year, and a state gas tax increase would bring in an estimated $2 million more each year, according to the city.
The sales tax increase doesn’t apply to basic purchases such as groceries and prescription drugs, according to the city, and an estimated 40 percent of city sales tax revenues are paid by tourists and visitors from surrounding areas.
The proposed ballot language for the measure reads:
“To maintain essential services and repair critical infrastructure including:
» Police, fire, and 9-1-1 emergency medical response.
» Local streets, potholes, bridges and storm drains.
» Neighborhood fire stations/public safety infrastructure.
» Parks, youth/senior services.
» Address homelessness.
» Help retain local businesses.
» Support other general services.
Shall the City of Santa Barbara enact a one-cent sales tax providing approximately 22 million dollars annually unless ended by voters; requiring audits, citizens oversight, public disclosure of spending, and all funds used locally?”
Councilmen Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse voted against putting the measure on the ballot – Hotchkiss because he preferred a special tax (which requires a two-thirds approval) to clarify what it could be spent on, and Rowse wanted a sunset clause.
Polling summaries provided by the consulting firm say that more voters said they would support a sales tax increase without a sunset than with a 20-year sunset.
When asked, “If the election were held today, would you vote yes in favor of this measure or no to oppose it,” 64 percent of people polled said they definitely, probably, or were leaning toward voting yes.
“This measure could be written so that it would be in effect for 20 years and then be legally required to expire at that time. If that were the case, would you vote yes in favor of this measure or no to oppose it?” In response to this question, 55 percent of respondents were in the yes category, according to the poll results.
Mayor Helene Schneider, councilmen Jason Dominguez, Gregg Hart and Bendy White, and Councilwoman Cathy Murillo voted to put the sales-tax increase on the ballot.
Dominguez said he was “less than enthusiastic about it,” but respected the fact that people in his district supported it, according to the city’s polling.
Public comments on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting ranged from concern over the “kitchen sink nature” of the proposed ballot measure, which had broad outlines of possible expenses, to strong support of it by people saying the city needs more infrastructure funding.