Santa Barbara city officials this week held the first of several workshops to discuss the city’s huge backlog of unfunded infrastructure needs. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

While many see May as the long-awaited return of warm weather and the end of school, it’s the kick-off of budget season for local governments.

Like many other budget-crafting sessions around the county and state, Santa Barbara’s will center in large part around a backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance.

This week marked the first of eight hearings City Hall is holding before the 2018-19 fiscal year begins on July 1.

The $351 million recommended budget consists of $318 million in operating expenses and $33 million in capital work.

The city’s biggest fund is its General Fund, which covers 37 percent of the budget, and is fed mostly by taxes, the largest of which is property tax.

Just over half the General Fund goes to police and fire services.

According to city finance staff, the fund is facing a projected $1.9 million gap next fiscal year and $2.8 million the year after, necessitating close to $1 million in reductions in city departments’ budgets.

First up to the plate Wednesday was the Public Works Department, which oversees infrastructure projects, maintenance and improvements.

Unfunded work poses “the biggest financial challenge facing the community,” according to city staff.

Santa Barbara’s deferred backlog of infrastructure maintenance, such as for street and bridge repairs, is a primary consideration during the city budget process, which kicked off this week.

Santa Barbara’s deferred backlog of infrastructure maintenance, such as for street and bridge repairs, is a primary consideration during the city budget process, which kicked off this week. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Earlier this year, the city put the next 20 years’ unfunded infrastructure needs at $546 million, including a new police headquarters, which is estimated to cost $80 million, plus $50 million in interest.

Public Works has said $12 million annually is needed to keep up with road maintenance, though only a sixth of that gets put toward those needs each year.

The City Council has had to squeeze other parts of the city budget in order to perform triage on these unfunded needs.

The longer roads are allowed to deteriorate, officials say, the more expensive it is to rehabilitate them.

Jim Dewey, Santa Barbara’s streets operations and infrastructure manager, said only 35 percent of city roads are considered to be in good or excellent condition. Another 7 percent are very poor, and cost up to $90 a square yard to repair.

He added that $25 million worth of the city’s 99 miles of storm drains is in serious need of replacement, as is $75 million worth of its 7 million square feet of sidewalk.

Mike Wiltshire, facilities and energy manager, put the facilities-renewal backlog at $216 million, due primarily to needed ADA and fire improvements and a new police headquarters.

Another $1.3 million backlog exists for facilities maintenance.

For fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1, Public Works revenues are expected to be $119 million — $53 million less than what’s projected for this year.

Expenditures, meanwhile will drop from a projected $199 million for 2017 to $129 million for 2018.

Despite the daunting numbers, Public Works division heads noted that Santa Barbara has been one of the most successful jurisdictions in California in acquiring state grants, amounting to $20 million to $25 million annually.

City engineer Brian D’Amour said those grants have helped fund the $100 million worth of projects going on in the city right now.

(Many projects, such as the Bicycle Master Plan, are grant eligible, while routine maintenance, such as for sidewalks, typically is not.)

Funding also comes from local Measure A monies, as well as the state gas tax, which was raised this year for the first time since 1994.

Dewey said that by 2020, Santa Barbara should be receiving the full $2.1 million it’s slated to get from the controversial increase.

Another pricey project for which the city is acquiring funding is the desalination plant, which is expected to begin providing a third of Santa Barbara’s water supplies this month.

“We’re getting very, very close,” said water resources manager Joshua Haggmark.

In order to meet the dearth of overall infrastructure funding, officials are strongly considering placing a measure on the November ballot that would raise the city sales tax by up to a cent.

City finance staff have estimated that a 1-percent, or one cent, increase would bring in about $22 million per year. 

A recent survey found that 64 percent of Santa Barbarans would definitely or probably vote for the measure, or are undecided but lean toward saying yes.​

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at sgoldman@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.