The special Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday offered several nuggets of interest, including the county’s expected minor surplus, its 17-year plan to pay down an $800 million unfunded pension liability, and its desire to include a hotel bed tax increase on the November ballot. But most of Monday’s three-plus hours of discussion circled back to two pressing issues: a delicate plan to pay for jail operations once the North County Jail gets built, and how Supervisor Peter Adam’s maintenance ballot measure could, if passed by voters, be a thorn in the budget’s side.
Dubbed an “experiment” by new county CEO Mona Miyasato, Monday’s meeting — which the county has never held before — served as a preface to the upcoming budget talks in April, when department heads will make their annual cases for funding, and to promote “a shared understanding” of the county’s past, present, and future. “Today was a good wake-up call for managing expectations,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr. “It’s going to be important for us to manage those expectations and plan to hold steady here, as much as we would like to not have to do that.”
Good news, including making it through the recession relatively unscathed, was quickly tempered by what challenges remain. How to pay for county jail operations — estimated at $17 million to start — when the North County facility opens in mid-2018 has long vexed the county, but Monday’s meeting presented a solution on the backs of the county’s $200 million discretionary fund, which relies heavily on property, sales, and hotel bed taxes. Money from that fund has been set aside incrementally since the 2011-2012 fiscal year and, if all goes as planned, will be enough to cover the costs.
But if the county is forced to come up with the extra $18 million-$21 million per year deemed necessary under Adam’s Measure M — which would require the supervisors to keep county-owned roads, buildings, and parks in their current condition or better — issues could arise. “The elephant in the room now is Measure M,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who helped write ballot language opposing the initiative. “It’s a reality. It’s not like it’s hypothetical. We need to address it head-on today in some capacity.”
The ideas floated to deal with Measure M, should it pass, involved decreasing the county’s fleet of facilities and increasing revenue by upping the current hotel bed tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent. Such an increase would only generate an extra $1.5 million per year, said county budget director Tom Alvarez, but it would help. Auditor-Controller Bob Geis said last week that Measure M would mean bad news for departments like public safety and health and human services.
On Tuesday, documents to accompany Geis’s fiscal impact statement on the ballot were released. A legal analysis from the county attorney said the ordinance “may not be enforceable.” Farr and Carbajal were joined by former 4th District supervisor Joni Gray — whom Adam defeated in 2012 — as well as former 5th District supervisor Joe Centeno, Sheriff Bill Brown, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara School Boardmember Monique Limón, and Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett, among others, in opposing the measure.
Adam’s efforts — which have brought the issue of maintenance and the county’s $300 million-and-growing deferred-maintenance backlog to the front of many county discussions recently — were supported by, among others, former supervisors Willy Chamberlain and Tom Urbanske and Santa Barbara City Councilmember and congressional candidate Dale Francisco.
Other issues addressed on Monday included the ongoing struggles of the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services. According to county staff, the department ended last year with a minor surplus but is projected to suffer a $3.4 million deficit at the end of the current fiscal year. Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf also mentioned support for public health and animal services. Wolf went on to note the importance of the “human capital” that has steered the county’s ship by invoking a metric used to assess the maintenance needs of county roads, saying you “can’t give them a PCI number.”