Although a clear majority of the Santa Barbara City Council believes new sources of revenue are urgently needed to meet hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred capital needs, the council voted 6-1 against hiring a polling firm to “take the temperature of city voters” regarding a possible sales tax increase that might have gone on the November ballot. Mayor Helene Schneider — who had previously expressed the keenest interest in such an increase — argued that a city-sponsored survey made no sense if a solid majority of the council did not support the need for new revenues. At least three of the seven councilmembers — Frank Hotchkiss, Dale Francisco, and Randy Rowse — have expressed intense skepticism to such a tax hike.
The discussion over the proposed $30,000 polling contract grew heated at times. Councilmember Grant House publicly challenged Hotchkiss to reconcile his stated opposition to any tax increase with his demand that City Hall hire more cops. “My question is, which programs do you want to cut?” House asked. Hotchkiss said he had homework to do before he could answer that, but he vowed to do it. Schneider’s turnaround on the issue was most dramatic. Not only was she most vocal in the need for new revenues, but she had launched an independent ballot campaign last year to increase the sales tax, split the proceeds with the public schools, and impose some modicum of “pension reform.” Schneider is up for reelection this November, and the burden of waging the pro–tax increase campaign would likely fall to her. With a split council, the campaign challenges would be significant.
While City Hall can sustain yearly operations without additional funds, no services cut during the recession can be restored, and pay increases for employee unions that have long gone without will become more politically painful. The additional $10 million a year that a half-cent sales tax would have generated would have helped cover some of the city’s unmet road repair costs, among other things. Bendy White, ever alarmed by City Hall’s colossal scale of deferred maintenance, struck an anguished tone in voting against the poll. “Right now, we’re taking from the future,” he lamented. “We owe the future a better package than a bag full of loans and run-down buildings.” Only Councilmember Cathy Murillo voted in favor of paying for the survey, passionately arguing that the results might reveal strong popular support for such a tax increase.