With a minimum of council fuss — but a significant degree of community agitation — the Santa Barbara City Council dispatched most of the “wild hair” issues that had the potential of becoming bones of contention in this year’s annual budget deliberations.
The most obvious winner was the Rental Housing Mediation Task Force, an orphan agency left stranded by cuts in federal funding. Responding to a major organizing push by Task Force supporters, the council voted to keep the task force fully funded — at a cost of $64,000 — rather than trim its functions back severely as initially proposed by City Administrator Jim Armstrong. With the additional general fund support, the Task Force — which, for 36 years, has helped settle disputes between landlords and tenants — will maintain an executive director and three-member support staff. Had the cuts taken place as initially proposed, the three part-timers would have been given the ax, and the task force would no longer be able to provide the mediation services that its name suggests. Over the decades, the task force has operated largely thanks to federal funding via community-development block-grant money. Those funds have dried up in the past two years, and Armstrong and the council, facing serious budget constraints of their own, have been loath to take on new obligations.
This year marks the second year in a row that the Task Force’s future has been called into question, and this year its supporters bombarded the council with emails, phone calls, and, on Wednesday, council testimony. More than 80 percent of the residents living in the city’s 93101 zip code are tenants, noted longtime affordable housing advocate Mickey Flacks, who pointedly urged the council to take tenant needs into consideration by funding continued Task Force operations. Leading up to this week’s deliberations, the outcome appeared to be a knuckle-biter, with three councilmembers strongly supporting the task force (Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmembers Grant House and Cathy Murillo) and three unwilling to take on new financial obligations (Dale Francisco, Frank Hotchkiss, and Randy Rowse), leaving one (Bendy White) uncomfortably in the role of swing voter. But by Wednesday, the dynamics shifted. While Francisco remained unwilling to budge, Rowse and Hotchkiss — after strongly suggesting the Task Force seek funding from the city’s landlords — opted to support the agency. Rowse even took his change of heart an extra step: He added language that would make ongoing Task Force funding part of the general fund process, not — as it’s always been — something supported from outside the general fund. Practically and politically speaking, that endows the Task Force with a degree of security that it’s lacked up until now.
The other big winner was the downtown branch of the Santa Barbara Public Library, which a couple of years ago had its Monday hours cut completely. This Wednesday, the council voted to restore the $154,000 needed to reopen the library on Mondays. To help defray some of the additional costs, the council also voted to reduce the operating hours by one hour a night. That means the library will now close at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. Library administrators estimate that reduction will adversely affect only 4 percent of their users. It’s not clear, however, what this change could portend for the community groups who meet and host events at the library’s Faulkner Gallery. Often, these events don’t start until 7 p.m.
Also winning big was the “restorative policing” program — which funds two full-time cops, six part-time social-service outreach workers, and six part-time social hosts to help keep the peace on State and Milpas streets and the waterfront. The restorative program was modeled on a similar effort in Santa Monica to connect chronic street people with necessary social services while at the same time maintaining a street presence robust enough to keep an eye on aggressive panhandlers and other unruly street people who have sparked concern among downtown businesspeople. Without a $330,000 infusion of general fund revenues, this pilot program would have died one year after its inception. (Initially, the program was funded with Redevelopment Agency funds, but all state redevelopment agencies were abolished earlier this year by order of the California Supreme Court.)
Lastly, the councilmembers agreed they wouldn’t try to raid the city’s Creeks Division piggy bank in order to compensate for $50,000 in repairs made by the Parks and Recreation Department to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. While the amount involved was relatively small, the outrage the proposal sparked — which was initially pushed by Councilmember Francisco — was considerable. The Creeks Division is funded largely with the proceeds of a city bed-tax increase (Measure B), which was approved by city voters in 2000. Measure B opponents warned at the time that future councils would seek to cannibalize these revenues to cover the cost of ongoing operations. Creeks Division supporters reminded the council of this fact during Wednesday’s deliberations, warning that any violation of the public’s trust for short-term gain would cost City Hall far more over time.
The bird refuge repairs clearly fell outside the scope of what Measure B called for; the measure was passed when the city’s beaches were getting closed due to high fecal coliform counts and other forms of contamination. Measure B was written to fund cleanup efforts that would keep the beaches open and the creeks clean. During tight budget times, other departments look lustfully at the Creeks Division’s revenues. When other departments are cutting back, Creeks is frequently adding programming and staff, having successfully leveraged its stream of bed-tax revenues to attract state, federal, and private grant revenues. In years past, councilmembers have sought to use these funds to “groom” the city’s beaches, raking the sand and sweeping away the seaweed. Those efforts have been rebuffed, dismissed as cosmetic makeovers.
With the elimination of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, however, City Hall has now lost a funding source for the street cleaning program that’s currently being undertaken by the Downtown Organization. Councilmember Rowse — former president of the Downtown Organization — has reportedly expressed interest in using the Creeks Division’s funds to pay for this function. An argument could be made that Measure B funds should be spent to keep the dirt accumulating in city streets from getting to the beaches and creeks. But based on the spirited and emphatic turnout from the city’s creek advocates, such a suggestion would draw intense opposition.
The really good news for the city’s budget is that the structural deficit anticipated by city budget analysis was much bigger than actually delivered. City bean counters were planning on a shortfall of $2.7 million this year, but thanks to a rebound in sales taxes and bed taxes, the structural deficit weighed in at less than $900,000. That was finessed without further layoffs or work furloughs by using onetime revenues. These new expenditures will add $550,000 to City Hall’s overall general fund obligations of $104 million. Most of that will be absorbed by an unexpected windfall of $400,000, which City Hall received after its Redevelopment Agency was killed. The rest will come out of other onetime funds and reserves.