Adding to the ominous fiscal uncertainty hovering over City Hall, finance czar Robert Peirson announced he’s stepping down after nearly 15 years as top bean-counter and more than 20 years with the City of Santa Barbara. Passionate, intense, and uncharacteristically blunt for a high ranking city administrator, Peirson explained he’s taking a new gig that will satisfy his itch to travel, working for the International City Managers Association and teaching counterparts throughout the world the intricacies of public finance.
A roller-hockey playing, Red-Sox-loving Grateful Dead head, Peirson assumed command of the city’s finances in 1995, in the wake of the Orange County investment scandal which cost the City of Santa Barbara $43 million. Eventually, the city would successfully sue, recovering all its losses, with attorneys’ fees thrown in plus and a modicum of interest.
As bad as that debacle was, Peirson said it pales in comparison to the tough times confronting local governments today. Not only must City Hall grapple with the precipitous loss of revenues inflicted by the recession, but the California legislature-in response to chronic structural deficits of its own—is intent upon raiding the cookie jars of city and county governments throughout the state. Peirson-who can frequently be seen smoking intently in front of City Hall—just helped shepherd the City Council through a $10.5 million budget “adjustment.” But before the ink was even dry, he announced that the balanced budget so painstakingly crafted had sprung a $1.4 million leak.
Whether the leak can be contained at that level remains to be seen, but Peirson is not optimistic about future city revenues. Around City Hall, word of Peirson’s departure was cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth. “It’s a huge loss,” lamented city councilmember and mayoral candidate Helene Schneider. “He knew exactly how the city worked, and he gave it to you straight.” Schneider credited Peirson for saving City Hall millions in the recent bond sales to underwrite airport expansion plans. Councilmember and rival mayoral candidate Iya Falcone was effusive in her lamentations as well. “It’s breaking my heart,” she said. “He’s so smart, so with-it and so fun.” Pat McElroy, a battalion commander with the fire department and former head of the Firefighters’ Association, said of Peirson, “He was a real straight shooter; I really trusted him.” As head of the fire fighters association, McElroy did not always see eye-to-eye with city hall administrators. “If he said something was good, it was good. If he said something was bad, you believed him,” McElroy said. “He’d come to our association meetings and take on all questions. He was just so comfortable in is own skin, he’d tell the truth. And it came across.” Peirson suggested he would probably be replaced by his right-hand man, Assistant Finance Director Robert Samario, at least on an interim basis. By leaving Samario’s position vacant, he said, City Hall could probably save two other positions in the city finance office.