Santa Barbara City Hall’s four heaviest hitters went to Sacramento this week to make their case that the city should be allowed to retain ownership of and control over 15 downtown parking lots and garages that were built with Redevelopment Agency funding. Making the trip north to argue that city-owned lots constitute a “legitimate government function” were Mayor Helene Schneider, City Administrator Jim Armstrong, City Attorney Steve Wiley, and Community Development Director Paul Casey. Unless state Department of Finance administrators agree, City Hall could find itself ordered to sell its lots as part of the state-ordered dissolution of all Redevelopment Agencies — and disbursement of all their assets — throughout the state. “The worst-case scenario is we’re forced to sell our lots, we lose the first 75 minutes of free parking, all the lots are operated differently, shoppers have to pay higher rates, and pretty soon you have tsunamis, locusts, and floods,” said Casey.
Since the 1960s, the City of Santa Barbara has sought to provide cheap and easily available parking to encourage shoppers to come downtown and keep the central business district economically healthy. Since the 1970s, the city’s Redevelopment Agency spent millions to that end as part of a sustained effort lasting 40 years. After that agency was forced to dissolve earlier this year — as part of the legislative response to California’s ongoing budget crisis — the city sought to transfer the parking lots to City Hall itself.
First, the Department of Finance sought legislation to stop the transfer, but when that was successfully rebuffed, the finance department asserted itself administratively to prevent City Hall from taking title to the parking lots. (Efforts to transfer the railway depot have likewise been blocked.) Wiley said the state’s objections have “no basis” and are “nonsense.” Should the Santa Barbara delegation prove insufficiently persuasive, Casey said a lawsuit was likely. “I don’t want to be premature, but we will not take no for an answer.” Neither Casey nor Wiley said they knew when the Department of Finance would render a decision.