As the deadline approaches to get items placed on this November’s ballot, talk of filling the ballot with local tax measures has intensified. Too many taxes usually turn voters off, and with taxpayers already fatigued from two elections in 2008-themselves containing tax measures-public officials might have a tough time getting this fall’s measures passed. “People obviously are not going to vote for a laundry list of taxes,” pointed out Joe Armendariz, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayer’s Association.
Making the matter more difficult is a recent maneuver by the Goleta City Council, itching to play hardball with the county. The council voted last week to look into putting a sales tax on the ballot-a slap in the face to SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments), which is trying to pass Measure A, a 0.5-percent sales tax increase that would replace the soon-to-expire Measure D and fund transportation improvement projects around the county with more than $1 billion in revenue over the next 30 years.
Goleta Councilmember Eric Onnen, who along with Mayor Michael Bennett and Councilmember Jean Blois voted to proceed toward a measure at their June 17 meeting, said recent surveys indicate city residents were more likely to vote for a city tax than for Measure A. Only a simple majority would be necessary if the measure included no specific designations. Furthermore, the prospect of Goletans voting against Measure A could seriously jeopardize the measure’s chances of passing, as it requires a two-thirds majority in order to pass. Should Measure A not pass, cities have the option of pursuing their own sales tax measures to deal with the potholes, sidewalk improvements, and other infrastructure needs for which the county and its seven cities currently rely on Measure D. The county, which would receive about $7 million annually from Measure A, wouldn’t be able to take of its unincorporated areas’ needs without it.
The county’s precarious position would seemingly give Goleta leverage in its struggle to renegotiate its revenue neutrality agreement, which was formulated at the time of Goleta’s 2002 incorporation as a city. Such agreements are generally put in place to protect California counties from losing major revenue when cities incorporate. At the time, those seeking Goleta cityhood agreed that 50 percent of property tax and 30 percent of sales tax generated in Goleta would go to the county in perpetuity. Other provisions, including 20 percent of sales tax and 40 percent of hotel taxes, go to the county until 2012. All in all, the deal translates into the county receiving upward of $8 million annually from Goleta.
Bob Braitman, executive director of LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission), which oversees incorporation efforts in the county, said, “The folks that wanted Goleta cityhood were so anxious to incorporate they settled for an agreement LAFCO staff never would’ve recommended,” adding the agreement was anything but neutral. Now the city is looking to renegotiate the contract, but recent talks between the county and the city have fallen flat, with the only offer from the county being to forgive a $1.5 million loan it gave the city at its outset. While county officials indicated they need more time to consider Goleta’s proposals-including eliminating the infinite aspect of the revenue neutrality agreement-the City Council appears unwilling to wait, and could move forward at its July 1 meeting with the tax measure to offset the lost revenue.
Tuesday, the Santa Barbara Board of Education tentatively approved a $25 parcel tax for four years that would fund programs to be determined on June 27. The same evening, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to put on the ballot a measure that, if passed, will reduce the Utility User Tax on telecommunications in the city from 6 to 5.75 percent.