A little over two months have passed since I introduced the Invest in Santa Barbara 2012 proposal to the voters for their consideration. Since then, there have been many media stories about these initiatives, and there’s definitely a community conversation happening all over the city. Whether it be through town hall meetings, walking around downtown, talking to people at the Farmers Market, or meeting with organizations, Santa Barbarans are debating and discussing the role of city government, how services should be funded, and who should pay for them.
The conversation is not just about some abstract ideas. There are actual petitions out today and city voters are diligently signing them to qualify these initiatives for the November ballot. The Invest in Santa Barbara proposal focuses on real-world challenges we currently face, and because of state law, only you, the voters, can decide whether or not to enact it.
Since the 2008 recession, the City Council has passed a balanced budget every year. But let’s be realistic here – budgets from the last four years reflect a dramatic cut in city services and the budget certainly does not reflect the services demanded and expected by city residents, business owners, and visitors.
I know homelessness has increased downtown, on lower Milpas Street and on the Waterfront area. I know people are concerned about gang violence. I know the number of burglaries and robberies has risen. People want an increase in police services in patrol cars, on bicycles, and on foot throughout the city. People want restored library services, better graffiti abatement, well-maintained parks, and improved street maintenance. I know these things because I hear from you every day.
City staff do a stellar job with the resources they have available; however with the recent reduction of over 100 full-time equivalent positions, there’s a limit to what they can accomplish. I appreciate the criticism expressed by people about tax or fee increases. However, if we want additional services, and I believe that we do, then we have to find a new source of revenue allowed by State law to pay for them.
Of course, it’s not just about revenue. I have watched with increasing alarm the budget impacts associated with public employee pensions’ costs. For every $1 spent on public safety salary, the City must contribute an additional 45 cents towards the Public Employee Retirement System. This amount will increase in Fiscal Year 2014. The Invest in Santa Barbara proposal is a modest change we can make today, which will hopefully head off a more draconian assault on the system in the near future. The initiative simply says that all city employees must pay their own employee-share of their own guaranteed retirement. I continue to have constructive dialogue with our city employee union associations, and appreciate their recognition of the importance of dealing with this issue in a responsible manner. To date, no city union association has come out in opposition to the Invest in Santa Barbara proposal.
Some individuals in the Democratic Party establishment have criticized this proposal because the issue of pensions has become their untouchable third-rail of statewide politics. The state legislature has refused to even discuss our own Democratic Governor’s pension reform plan. Pension reform must be discussed in real-world terms by responsible, fair people who respect public employee pensions and believe that some modest changes to the current system will ensure its long-term political and fiscal strength.
Finally, on the Entertainment District fee, I think most Santa Barbarans agree that alcohol sales have a higher societal cost than other retailers and should pay a more proportional share towards public safety services.
While doing nothing is an option, Santa Barbara can do better than the zero-sum rhetoric found in state and national debates which reward the status quo. I am asking voters to put aside their ideological doctrine and focus on dealing with the challenges facing our community. Please take your time. Study the policies (for complete details: investinsantabarbara2012.com). Put aside the politics and the personalities. Ask yourself, “Would Santa Barbara be better off if the voters approved these proposals and invested in Santa Barbara?” If the answer is yes, then sign the petitions. If the answer is no, then please, tell me your alternatives. My door is open.
Helene Schneider is the mayor of the City of Santa Barbara