Last Tuesday, July 1, the Goleta City Council picked up the gauntlet it had thrown down on the county a couple of weeks ago, and, in a statement read by Mayor Michael Bennett, pulled off the agenda the two ballot measures they had sworn to pursue at the previous meeting. In his statement, the mayor avowed Goleta’s dedication to regional cooperation and support for Measure A, the countywide half cent tax for transportation. The council majority of Jean Blois, Eric Onnen, and Bennett had voted at the June 17 meeting for two measures to go on the November ballot: the first tasking Goletans to unilaterally revise the revenue neutrality agreement with the county that was a requirement of incorporation; and the second placing a half-cent city sales tax on the ballot, which would probably compete for votes with Measure A.
The sales tax measure caused much concern throughout the county because a rival to Measure A, which requires a two-thirds vote to pass, would threaten funding for the county and other cities for road repair, widening 101, commuter buses, the MTD, bikeways, safe routes to school, and much more. The widespread concern was apparent with the attendance at the council meeting of Carpinteria city councilman Joe Armendariz and Greg Hart of the Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s (SBCAG), which oversees transportation projects countywide. They left, clearly relieved, right after the mayor’s statement.
The purpose of the two ballot measures was to bring the county to the table to renegotiate the City of Goleta’s revenue neutrality agreement. The council majority’s about-face was a surprise and may have been due to the concern expressed by other jurisdictions. But it is also true that councilmembers had only recently been made aware that by state law, a two-thirds vote was required to place a tax measure on the ballot. Apparently, there was no fourth vote on the council to do this. Without the tax measure, the revenue neutrality measure, which only required a simple majority, would accomplish little besides bringing on a lawsuit from the county. It is possible too, that the county has shown willingness to sit down and talk some more, though nothing was said to indicate such a move.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about Goleta’s revenue neutrality agreement being the worst in the state of California. However, this statement omits the fact that in 2001, at the time of incorporation, the county was receiving $5.5 million in revenue from Goleta over and above what it spent on services there for police protection, streets and road repair, parks, and other public services generally provided to urban areas. Revenue neutrality law required that counties not be hurt financially by new incorporations. And because Goleta has several high revenue generators, such as the Camino Real Marketplace and the Bacara Resort, its payments to the county are relatively high. Most other new cities did not have these assets, so their revenue sharing assessments with counties are lower. That some of the revenues to the county are in perpetuity is perhaps unique to Goleta, and it would seem reasonable to negotiate an end-date.
There is at least one example of a much worse agreement than Goleta’s: Citrus Heights, which incorporated in 1997, established a revenue neutrality agreement with a set dollar amount to go back to Sacramento County each year. It depended on income from a new shopping mall, which failed to deliver the expected revenues. The city nearly went bankrupt and had to work out new terms with its county. Goleta’s agreement is based on percentages of revenues, not absolute amounts, and so will not face a similar situation. If revenues go down, so will the city’s payments to the county.
All this being said, perhaps it is time to take a new look at the agreement and see if what was fair in 2001 should be amended to address conditions in 2008. This can only be done through negotiations with the county and will require some carrots, perhaps a stick or two, and above all, infinite patience. So far, the current council, after one or perhaps two meetings with the county, started begun with a stick approach and challenged the county with these two proposed ballot measures. These are now off the table.
Next November, there will be a new 3rd District Supervisor and possibly new Goleta City Councilmembers. This may provide the opportunity to open new dialogue and arrive at positive solutions.