Santa Barbara County’s business community and local elected officials boasted smiling faces as they gathered for the first in-person State of the County Address on Thursday morning.
The Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce hosted the second annual address at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, where local leaders discussed the county’s accomplishments and challenges during the past year.
“We know we are living in unprecedented times. The business community has relied on its strengths, our innate entrepreneurialism, our focus on efficiency, our ability to pivot, our unwavering commitment to hard work, and our heart for our employees and our communities,” said Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the chamber. “We have tried to react swiftly, efficiently and enthusiastically to the daunting challenges before us in the face of our worst enemy: uncertainty. … But we’ve learned so much. Together, we’ve worked to bring back our economy while striving to keep our employees, customers and students safe.”
In June, the Board of Supervisors approved a $1.35 billion budget with a “very positive fiscal outlook,” County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato said.
“Our board has been very good at prioritizing, planning ahead and sometimes cutting back when we need to, despite nonstop emergencies and disasters,” she said. “This year, we’ve been able to fully fund our contingent reserves and a contingency fund for unseen emergencies — which is important for the county.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, property and sales tax revenues have remained stable with modest growth, and the county continues to see cannabis tax revenues that exceed estimates, Miyasato said.
The county generated $15.7 million in cannabis tax revenues during the past year, which is going toward enforcement, permitting and compliance programs, as well as community needs such as libraries, alternative energy projects, and housing and homeless programs, she added.
An $87 million allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funding also will be coming to the county during the next two years, and the county already has allocated about $19 million of that to community needs and critical projects, according to Miyasato.
“We will see more public investment than we have in decades on these pressing, chronic issues that were exacerbated and made clear by the pandemic,” Miyasato said.
While some of the funding is restrictive and has to be used for certain measures, there also will be a bucket of discretionary funding that the county can use for bigger projects that it has “needed to tackle for quite some time,” Board of Supervisors chair Bob Nelson said.
“The bottom line with that large amount of money is I think all of us on the board want to look back a year, maybe five or 10 years from now, and see that we actually made a difference with that,” he said. “I don’t think we want to just put it into something that is going to be fleeting. We could use those funds to put people back to work and build a legacy in our county.”
The county distributed more than $13 million in emergency rental assistance through United Way of Santa Barbara County, with another $29 million coming from federal and state governments, Miyasato said. The county also approved a moratorium on residential evictions in the unincorporated areas of the county so that residents could stay housed despite financial loss brought on by the pandemic.
During the past year, the county provided more than 26,700 bed nights through Project Roomkey to house unsheltered individuals and help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and of those sheltered, 50% have transitioned into permanent supportive housing, according to Miyasato.
Nelson said the board is going to start working on the “encampment strategy,” which will start with the people who are at the worst stage of homelessness.
“If we start to address those acute needs and at least start to bring up people through the process, I think that’s where we can actually start to get some help,” he said. “For somebody to move through the various stages of homelessness and hopefully into treatment and being housed … each person’s story and solution is different.”
The Board of Supervisors also approved nearly $1 million in grant funding for emergency assistance for businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county, and another $300,000 in direct grants to small businesses in those areas, according to Assistant County Executive Officer Nancy Anderson.
In the early days of the pandemic, the county posted the RISE guide with resources, guidelines and economic recovery-related information for business owners to safely reopen their businesses. The page logged more than 103,000 visits, and nearly 5,000 businesses submitted attestations to reopen safely, Anderson said.
While many businesses and industries have reopened since the start of the pandemic, unemployment is still elevated in Santa Barbara County.
Before the pandemic struck, the county had about a 3.8% unemployment rate, which shot up when businesses were forced to close and people were isolated. While the rate has improved, it has not bounced back entirely, as it currently sits at 5.5%, according to UCSB Economic Forecast Project Director Peter Rupert.
“It’s better than it was, obviously, but that’s still a long way to go,” Rupert said. “There are many, many people still unemployed; in fact, there are 12,000 people unemployed in Santa Barbara County right now.”
Before the pandemic, there were 6,000 county residents who faced unemployment, he added.
The food and drink industry is down about 2,000 workers from the pre-pandemic days, and hotel and hospitality employment is still down 35%, according to Rupert.
Rupert said he is “not too worried” about those numbers because the industries are going to bounce back.
“This is not the new normal. This is the next normal, meaning we should be prepared and continually looking ahead because there may be possibly drastic changes still ahead of us,” Miyasato said. “And since we don’t know exactly what those are, or when they will be, our focus has to be on ensuring our organizations and ourselves are ready for whatever is next.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.