This week was rich in 2nd District politics. Outside the County Courthouse on Monday, Janet Wolf — who has been at the helm of that district since 2006 — formally announced that she is running for reelection against challenger and current Goleta City Councilmember Roger Aceves. At the Goleta City Council meeting on Tuesday, a significant chunk of the discussion was devoted to a city-proposed public-relations blitz to educate residents about the city’s controversial tax-sharing deal with the county —a suggested push preceded last weekend by a telephone survey assessing residents’ awareness of the deal ahead of the possible PR campaign. But the survey also asks how people view Wolf.
The survey, which aims to reach 600 households and is ongoing, is polling “high-propensity voters” not only in Goleta city limits but also in parts of Santa Barbara and certain unincorporated regions of the county, said the city’s spokesperson, Valerie Kushnerov. (Those same regions make up the 2nd District; whether the polled residents are going to be exclusively 2nd District residents remains unclear.) Kushnerov said one of the questions asks voters to say whether they have “favorable or unfavorable” impressions of a number of governmental entities, including the City of Goleta and the county, but also including Wolf. No other supervisors — such as Doreen Farr, whose 3rd District includes a small slice of the Good Land — are mentioned by name.
Kushnerov said that the firm hired to conduct the survey came up with the questions, and city officials insisted that the survey was not political. But, to some, it’s suspect.
“This so-called informational campaign is ill-timed, to say the least,” said former two-time Goleta mayor Margaret Connell, who spoke out against the survey and suggested PR campaign at Tuesday’s meeting, saying she was one of the people called. Connell, who was one of the key figures in getting Goleta to cityhood, continued: “Regardless of the intention behind this project, it is absolutely critical that you avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and right now, it doesn’t look too good.”
Wolf agreed. “Whatever they say, it’s obviously political,” she said. “I’m not the only supervisor in the county or in the city.”
Although the council ultimately postponed a final decision on the proposed blitz until the survey results are available, the city’s issue with its tax-sharing deal — the Revenue Neutrality Agreement (RNA) — continues. For the first 10 years under the deal, approved by voters in 2001 alongside a vote for the City of Goleta’s incorporation, the city split its property-tax and sales-tax revenues with the county 50/50, with the county also netting 40 percent of the city’s bed-tax revenues. As of this fiscal year, per the agreement, the city is no longer forking over its bed-tax revenues and is contributing less sales tax and the same amount of property tax.
But the RNA remains unpopular with city officials. That first decade of the RNA — which comes from a state law passed in 1993 to initiate such agreements, meant to ensure that counties don’t suddenly lose money for countywide services when a city incorporates — provided the county with more than $80 million. And unlike every other RNA in California, Goleta’s, without the county’s go-ahead, will live on forever. Opponents of the deal have called it unfair to permanently ask the city — whose budget hovers around $20 million — to contribute millions of dollars every year to the county, which has a budget of approximately $850 million.
Negotiations with the county in years past, as well as ones last fall, went nowhere, City Manager Dan Singer said Tuesday. He said that the survey would serve to gauge residents’ take on the agreement and that the proposed PR campaign, including sending out mailers, could inspire residents to “take up this cause.”
Aceves, who launched his supervisorial campaign in September, said that the issue has been on his “bucket list” for quite some time and that it “has nothing to do with the fact that I’m running against Janet Wolf.” He also said that he, along with Councilmembers Paula Perotte and Ed Easton (both supported Wolf on Monday), had no say in the questions asked.
Mayor Michael Bennett (who has also endorsed Wolf) and Councilmember Jim Farr (who has made axing the RNA his chief goal) were the two councilmembers overseeing the survey. They said separately that they didn’t write the questions, but said that mentioning Wolf, however nonpolitical the intentions were, made sense. City Attorney Tim Giles said he didn’t see an issue with including Wolf in the survey. “I don’t know that it’s political so much as an information-gathering tool,” he said.
Some critics took issue with the cost of the survey — $30,000 — and of the possible public information campaign, which was projected at around $60,000. In his report to the council, Singer, citing the millions the city gives away each year, said that the “investment in an education campaign of these expenses may prove worthwhile.”
In response to Goleta’s efforts, the county CEO’s office published a frequently-asked-questions page on the county website, stating that this fiscal year, the county lost nearly $3 million under the deal, as the cost of services it provided to the city exceeded the amount of taxes shared.
Wolf said she supports further talks on the issue. “I will never close the door on negotiations, but they do have to be done in true good faith and certainly not with this political gamesmanship and threats.” Aceves and Wolf will square off in the June 3 primary.