Dick Thomas, Santa Barbara’s former city manager, who oversaw the development of the Paseo Nuevo mall in downtown Santa Barbara and the renovation of Stearns Wharf, died at age 79 in Billings, Montana. Crisp, formal, and professional, Thomas served as City Hall’s chief executive from 1977 to 1993.
In that time, Santa Barbara veered dramatically between pro-growth and slow-growth regimes. Focused on the bottom line, Thomas was seen as a pro-business figure. But it was Thomas who argued for a slow-growth scenario 20 years ago when City Hall embraced Measure E, which limited the amount of new commercial development possible per year. Growth, Thomas concluded, cost the city more for the new services required than it brought in as additional revenues. In Thomas’s mind, the real limit to growth was not water or traffic capacity, but the city’s financial resources.
Like his successors, Thomas struggled with tight budgets. But he was not hamstrung by many of the impediments to raising revenues that exist today. For example, Thomas convened a special council meeting to discuss drastic cuts to police and fire or increasing the transient occupancy tax. With little debate, the council approved the tax increase. Today, such a decision would require a vote of the electorate; to even place it on the ballot would require a unanimous vote of the City Council.