A screenshot of the Santa Maria City Council during Tuesday’s meeting shows Mayor Alice Patino, center, along with Councilwoman Gloria Soto, left, and Councilman Mike Cordero, right. Not pictured since they were sitting off the dais because of social distancing are Councilwoman Etta Waterfield and Councilman Carlos Escobedo.

Faced with a proposal to implement huge hikes in user fees, the Santa Maria City Council on Tuesday balked and instead favored lower and slower increases to cover the costs of providing services.

But it also decided that some fees won’t be touched, including those for most Recreation and Parks Department and Santa Maria Public Library activities. 

The council majority agreed to increase fees by 50% of the recommended rate from a consultant’s recently completed user fee study, which had called for hikes amounting to $3.8 million annually after reviewing more than 240 fees.

In later action Tuesday, the council unanimously agreed to conduct a regular review and incremental increases reflecting the Consumer Price Index. It also wants to conduct another comprehensive analysis in five years.

“I guess what I’d like to say, and I think I’m hearing this, is we want the cost of service to be paid for,” Mayor Alice Patino said. “I just think that right now this huge jump is a huge jump.”

Additionally, the panel set a goal to recover 100% of the costs to provide the services by 2026.

Councilman Carlos Escobedo and Councilwoman Gloria Soto opposed the motion to raise the fees only 50% after seeking full increases recommended by the study.

“These increases are not only necessary but fair,” Escobedo said.

City Manager Jason Stilwell said a consultant had studied existing fees and the cost of providing various services as the city’s expenses have grown faster than revenue

“If we don’t have the revenue to pay for these costs, we have more pressure to reduce services and to reduce staffing,” Stilwell said. 

The city has not increased most fees since 2005, he added.

He said the goal is for the private sector to pay for the services they receive directly from the city while continuing to subsidize services with a public benefit. 

The city currently is recovering 32% of its cost for services, or $5.2 million, while taxpayers are picking up 68%, or $10.9 million, Finance Director Mary Harvey said. Under the original proposal, that recovery number would climb to 53%, or $8.3 million, she added.

Many of the biggest increases affect those doing business with the Community Development Department.

“It’s just too bad we haven’t done this incrementally,” Patino said, noting that one Community Development Department fee of $284 would be raised to more than $8,600. “That is a huge gap.”

Recreation and Parks fees would remain untouched with the exception of renting ball fields, with any increase aimed at covering electrical costs. 

“This is a community benefit,” Patino said. “I’m fine with not raising the fees on Rec and Parks. I think that’s really important to all the families in our community.”

The proposed increases sparked opposition from regular residents as well as the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Laurie Tamura, a planning consultant.

“As a result of applying an overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution to arrive at recommended increases, the consultant’s report includes increases that range from reasonable to unbelievable,” Chamber of Commerce officials said in a letter to the council. “The average increase (based on items with a current fee) is over 500%! At the same time, there are several items where the proposed increase exceeds 1,000 percent, with the largest increase coming in at a whopping 6,068 percent!”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.