Before moving to California, Ed Easton — a Connecticut native who picked up undergrad and graduate degrees from Yale University — had worked a full career outside of Washington, D.C., where he worked for the National Wildlife Federation before starting his own company training leaders within the environmental movement. In 2001, he and his wife of 53 years decided to move to Goleta to be closer to one of their two grown sons, and Easton quickly dove into the region’s liberal, slow-growth politics. By 2008, the bald-headed, bespectacled progressive had been easily elected to the Goleta City Council, and he’s spent the past four years helping that new city grow into its own.
Today, neither of his grown sons are in California anymore — one’s in Columbus, Ohio, the other in Austin, Texas — but Easton remains committed to his adopted city and announced his run for reelection to city council on Wednesday morning. Earlier in the week on Monday morning, just as he was taking his eggs out of the frying pan, Easton answered a few of my questions about the10-year-old city, its challenges, its future, and the November race.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation .
Why do you want to run again?
I see too well what’s coming, and I think it’s worth trying to make that different. Right now, we look good and everyone thinks we’re wonderful, well, 87 percent anyway. If we’re not too damn careful, we’re going to get into trouble. The city manager knows that, most of the council understands it, but at the same time, they’ve got their own agendas, and I don’t think anyone realizes how much trouble we can get in.
What do you mean by trouble?
Well, if the Sheriff’s Department keeps on raising what it costs to hire officers in the field — which is 5 percent a year, and that’s a huge chunk of our budget, something around 40 percent — just that one thing escalating at that rate means other things just have to vanish because we aren’t going to be able to afford them. The county is in the same shape. Wasn’t [County of Santa Barbara CEO] Chandra Wallar just quoted as saying the increases are unsustainable?
Do the cops say that it’s just the cost of doing business?
No, I haven’t gotten anything, and I listened to all the negotiations over the five-year contract — just listened and didn’t participate, as electeds aren’t allowed to participate, that’s staff’s job — but I never heard any excuse. Everyone knows what it is: the fringe benefits that they got during the 1990s are now coming due, and I haven’t heard anything from our former county executive that excuses any of that. Except that’s probably what he would have said, that this is what it cost back then to get officers. But it’s not a sustainable cost.
What are some possible options?
The one that we have at this point is that if there are projected costs for a coming year that exceeds 3 percent growth, we ask them to make a recommendation to us as to how they can serve for not greater than 3 percent. They have to come back with their recommendations.
That’s part of the problem: You take a budget for law enforcement services to a bunch of civilians and say, What do you think about this? How do they make a good judgment? What the hell do they know about how you police a city?
What it works out to be is that you have to cut one or two officers, because that’s how they cost everything. Everything is in term of FTEs [full-time exployees], and when your officer costs are $216,000 a year, and that’s the only choice you have? We are at least doing to get recommendations from them as to what they think is a feasible alternative.
That’s part of the new five-year contract. It doesn’t solve the problem, but at least it makes it a little easier. Chandra is exactly right, and I think this is going to get done on a statewide basis, but you can’t be bound by contracts that cannot be funded.
Is there any chance for Goleta to have its own police department?
We did a study that was completed just before we began the negotiations with the Sheriff, and the conclusion was that really isn’t a feasible alternative. The cost to set it up would be huge, and we’re not going to save that much money. There are a lot of reasons for that.
At this point, and it’s satisfying to watch this and very comforting to know it’s there, when an officer calls in and says he’s getting out of his car to check something, every patrol officer in the surrounding area turns and starts driving in that direction. So if something happens, they’re going to be on the scene a lot quicker. That’s a very significant benefit to using the county.
I don’t have any question about the training of their people. They’re good officers, but everybody is caught in something that is very difficult to change.
So in your next four years, you’d go outside Goleta to find some of these answers?
That’s one of the discussion that’s going to have to start occurring. Fifty-seven counties have got to get involved with the state government in saying, Can we work out a way that you aren’t stealing from us and the cities can get funded? California is just dysfunctional.
They wiped out redevelopment — that gets the state some money to balance the budget, but not even coming close. Everything is on the table. That’s an insane way to run a state. You can quote me on that.
Aside from public safety, then, what other challenges are ahead for Goleta?
We’ve got mostly good things happening in Goleta. It’s the budget that is the elephant in the room.
But at this point, we have to make a couple of changes in our planning department. We’ve got vacancies and people that are out where we are using part-time people to fill in. We’ve got to get a handle on these applications being processed. That’s been a problem with developers. We weren’t ready for an onslaught of development projects.
And with your RDA funds gone, you have to reorganize, right? You had an entire RDA department.
That is exactly what is in progress at this point. We are looking at putting those people to work on more economic development. The three people involved are very capable people indeed, and we’d hate to lose them, so we’ve got to find jobs that will have the financial benefits that will pay the cost of keeping them on.
What kind of jobs are those?
We’re going to be finding that out next week when we’re getting a presentation about a number of things. We’ve been talking to business and asking, What does Goleta need to do to make your operation run better and make more money? How can we foster that in the city?
We’re growing our own through GEM [the Goleta Entrepreneurial Magnet, a collaboration with UCSB and the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce]. But even with that, it doesn’t solve the financial problem to any great degree. We continue to lose 50 percent of our property tax and 30 percent of our sales tax.
You’re talking about the revenue netrality agreement with the county that was hashed out when Goleta became a city 10 years ago. Do you think the county would ever come to the table to renegotiate that?
They have said that they aren’t ever going to come to the table. At this point, given their financial situation, that’s exactly what I’d say.
But in certain ways, aside from just being equitable, it doesn’t really do anything but give short-term benefits to the county. It says to Goleta: You don’t really want to raise you population, do you? You don’t want to build those houses, do you? You’re only going to get half of the property tax, which everyone knows isn’t really enough to pay the long-term costs of serving those residences.
We’ve got housing coming, but it sure isn’t going to be money in the bank as far as the city is concerned.
Goleta does have a ton of housing coming down the pipe, which is interesting in that many consider the councilmembers to be slow-growthers.
It’s funny. Yes, certainly, I’m a slow-growth person. Margaret [Connell] is a slow-growth person. Paula [Perotte] is too, and Roger [Aceves] is too, and Michael Bennett is intelligent enough of a person to realize that some of what used to be the Chamber of Commerce line is no longer valid.
But what’s happened is that the growth — which is in accordance with the general plan that was planned for a city 20 to 30 years down the road, in terms of the normal rate of development — is all of a sudden, boom!, it’s gonna happen, and it’s gonna happen in the next 10 years, which is gonna shock everybody. Hopefully we can keep up with the infrastructure improvements to those impacts.
So Margaret Connell is not running, but has anyone else stepped up for her seat?
Yes, Jim Farr.
And what do you think of Farr?
If Doreen [Farr, 3rd District County Supervisor] endorses him, and I heard that she did, he must be pretty good. We’ve talked some but haven’t talked politically much, and that’s something I want to set up.
That’s all I’ve heard. We’ve got till the 16th of August to know if anyone steps up. We haven’t had an uncontested election in Goleta yet, but I don’t see anybody making noise or any motions in that direction.
Is there anything we didn’t touch upon?
We’re in good shape right now, and that’s been because everyone has understood that you’ve got to be careful with the budget and don’t use ongoing revenues to pay onetime costs and don’t use onetime revenues to pay ongoing costs. You just run into next year, and it doesn’t work. [City manager] Dan Singer has run that budget well.
We have good things coming, from a new hospital to a nursing home, to the planned skating rink. There are a lot of things coming that will make Goleta a better place to live.