After hearing about new polling showing support from two-thirds of residents, the Santa Barbara City Council moved forward Tuesday with plans for a November ballot measure to increase the city’s sales tax to fund a backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance.
With survey responders and council members favoring a 1-percent increase, the new money would help fund maintenance needs for streets, sidewalks, parks, storm drains, traffic lights and more.
City finance staff have estimated that a 0.25 percent increase would bring in $5.5 million annually, and a 1-percent, or one cent, increase would bring in about $22 million per year.
Earlier this year, the city put the next 20 years’ unfunded infrastructure needs at $546 million.
“The costs aren’t going to get cheaper in the future. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said Councilman Gregg Hart. “This is pretty simple stuff that voters understand.”
Santa Barbara’s current sales tax is 7.75 percent — the same as Carlsbad, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Oceanside. Santa Maria’s is 8 percent.
The community survey, conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3), found that 64 percent of its 800 respondents would definitely or probably vote for the measure, or are undecided but lean toward saying yes.
Another 32 percent responded that they would definitely, probably, or are inclined to vote it down.
After FM3 presented respondents with data on the deterioration of city infrastructure, it found the margin of support widened.
Topping respondents’ list of priorities were maintaining police, fire, paramedics and 9-1-1 emergency response; repairing local streets and potholes; and keeping neighborhood fire stations opened and staffed.
FM3 also found that by high margins, residents wanted to require public disclosure of a measure’s spending, and that all sales-tax funds be used locally — something Mayor Helene Schneider said was constitutionally guaranteed.
“The sales tax is the preferred tax for most voters,” said FM3 principal John Fairbank. “They understand what they pay for, they understand where it goes.”
According to Fairbank, support for a 1-cent hike was also higher than a partial-cent hike, which he said reflects a strong desire in the community to fix the problem.
Though the sales tax and an increase in it are regressive, Fairbank’s firm found lower-income people favored it the most: Roughly three-quarters of those making under $50,000 voiced support, versus around two-thirds of people making over $100,000.
“Those who earn the least are the strongest supporters of measures like” sales taxes increases, school bonds and transportation measures, he said. “They use the services more, they want more investment.”
When asked why the levels of support among each income cohort were the same or higher than the overall average, Fairbank noted that the 20 percent of respondents who declined to name their income tended to have higher income — the end of the spectrum with the lowest support.
The one statistic that was missing, Councilman Jason Dominguez pointed out, was how much more money residents would have to spend every year with a 1-percent hike.
The council will decide whether or not to put the measure on November’s ballot in July, after ballot language is drafted.
If a city sales tax increase measure is put to the voters, it would require a simple majority to pass.
Officials said that between now and July, they plan to gather more public input and develop accountability mechanisms.
Councilman Frank Hotchkiss was the lone no vote on Tuesday, saying that with other taxes and fees like the gas tax also increasing, “one cent is too much.”
The new funds, Councilman Randy Rowse argued, would be an investment in Santa Barbara’s considerable tourism economy, which relies on aesthetics and quality infrastructure.
With so many out-of-towners making purchases in the city, Schneider added, visitors would be helping pay for services they use.
One of the most pressing needs has been road upkeep. According to the city, half its streets have been independently rated as poor, at risk, or failed.
Public Works Department staff have 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 infrastructure needs.
The longer roads are allowed to deteriorate, officials say, the more expensive it is to rehabilitate them. Earlier this year, the council voted to borrow against future Measure A transportation revenues to fund near-term street repairs.
Another pressing infrastructure project for the city is a new police headquarters.
The current 28,000-square-foot building at 215 E. Figueroa St. was built in 1959 when the department had half as many personnel as it does today. The building does not meet modern seismic and accessibility standards, has outdated plumbing and electrical systems and faces serious space constraints.
A few Police Department functions, such as its 9-1-1 call center, are housed in other locations. Many department divisions’ work spaces are in an adjacent building on Anapamu Street.
The cost of a completely revamped headquarters on Figueroa Street is expected to be $80 million, plus $50 million in interest.
One source of the funding crunch was the dissolution several years ago of the city’s redevelopment agency, which paid for urban development projects with property taxes. The city contends that over the last five years, more than $100 million has gone to the state instead.
The recent expiration of a temporary state sales-tax increase, along with ever-declining revenues from the state gas tax, has exacerbated the situation.
However, a new law that squeaked through the state Legislature earlier this month increases the gas tax for the first time since 1994, and is projected to raise $52 billion over the next 10 years for infrastructure repairs in the state.
Schneider said the city is expected to receive about $2 million of that to start with.