I have good reason to have serious concerns about the Milpas Community Association’s proposal for an Eastside Business Improvement District, or EBID. I have conducted extensive research by speaking with business owners and studying the Management Plan (which lays out the EBID’s activities) and state law. I’ve met with EBID supporters.
The Santa Barbara City Council heard a presentation about the EBID on November 11, 2014. Prior to the hearing, I went to Milpas Street and asked business owners and managers for their opinions about the proposal and the Milpas Community Association (MCA) in general. The group wants to transform itself from an organization supported by voluntary contributions to a formal BID, with a quasi-governmental ability to collect assessments from businesses.
I wanted to know: What is the MCA’s record with the business community it has been serving for the last few years? Has the MCA won support for a proposal that would influence not only the Milpas commercial corridor but a large section of the surrounding neighborhood?
I discovered some businesses had never heard of the MCA. Others knew it as the group that puts on special events. Some were MCA members, having paid voluntary annual dues and pitched in extra for the holiday parade. I spent four hours walking Milpas and talked to about 25 business owners.
That day, only one business owner knew about the proposed EBID.
Then I turned my attention to the area west of Milpas. The EBID boundaries encompass 830 businesses, including the area between Milpas and Salsipuedes, and several waterfront hotels. In that area are auto shops, construction yards, wood and metal shops, other industries.
Not one business owner that I spoke to in the industrial area had heard of the EBID proposal. As of this writing, I’ve talked to about 50 businesses total. These businesses were unaware of the EBID and certainly were not involved in developing or initiating the plan.
MCA leaders have made public statements that their group — incorporated as a 501(c)(4), a political lobbying organization — has been primarily funded by a dozen or so businesses. That’s not fair, they say. More businesses must contribute. First of all, it is not the role of government to compel support for a 501(c)(4) organization. Second, the MCA has not built relationships with enough businesses, which is why it cannot sustain its activities through voluntary donations.
By state law, all the businesses in the proposed district get to say “yes” or “no” to forming the BID. However, the petition process is a “weighted” vote, meaning that the businesses paying higher assessment rates have more voting power. The MCA must get “yes” votes from businesses representing 50 percent of the total assessment. In other words, the process is not one business, one vote. A business that voted “no” still would be forced to pay the assessment.
That process is not fair. Nor is it fair that the MCA conceived, developed, drafted, and finalized the Management Plan without a single public forum to openly present the plan to all the impacted businesses and to Eastside residents. As I write this, the MCA has still not scheduled a community forum.
Also of concern is that the EBID encompasses at least three distinct business districts, and includes residential areas as well. These include: large and small tourist-serving waterfront hotels from the Zoo to Fess Parker’s DoubleTree, the Milpas Street corridor that includes retail/restaurant/offices, and the light industrial area that must maintain workability and not be transformed like the Funk Zone.
The Management Plan, as written, does not address how the BID operator will make sure the assessments collected will directly benefit each different type of commerce and each individual business, as the law explicitly requires. Nor has the city seen a detailed proposed budget. Many services and benefits are promised without detailing how much they cost and how they will be paid for.
I will close by addressing assertions in the Open Letter.
The original management plan included assessments on rental properties — residential and commercial — all landlords were to be assessed. The City Council told the MCA to remove residential rental properties from the plan in November, and commercial landlords were dropped only as recently as January 9.
I am not the only person concerned about gentrification and the Eastside losing its affordability and, consequently, the businesses thriving there. In terms of the light-industry area, promoting tourism is not appropriate where there is noise, heavy truck traffic, and all the activities related to manufacturing, construction, recycling, and auto repair work.
I have been criticized for calling the assessment at “tax.” In truth it is an “assessment,” which means that it is tied to specific property that will benefit, and is not a tax that benefits the general public. I will be more careful with my language, but I hope EBID supporters will listen carefully to businesses that do not want to increase their business costs, whether it is a tax or assessment.
I did not orchestrate a protest during the Milpas holiday parade. What I saw: business owners and community members sitting in lawn chairs on the curb holding signs, exercising free speech, not disrupting the parade.
As for the rest of the City Council, I cannot speak for them. I know I’ve done my research, and I’m not afraid to stand alone in my concerns and support of businesses that do not want the EBID. As for the downtown BIDs, I asked tough questions, again did my research, and I read all the protest letters and invited those naysaying businesses to contact me.
I respect the good community work the MCA has done. I believe it should continue to be funded by voluntary donations or grants. As for the EBID’s promised services, the city already has a strong graffiti-removal program and our Neighborhood Services division has in the past employed teens to clean the streets. It makes more sense to develop a teen job-training program that cleans the heavily walked Milpas Street “promenade.” Furthermore, beach hotels are already pay into the TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) administered by Visit Santa Barbara. A well-functioning agency currently serves their needs.
MCA members, I share your passion for the Eastside, but I respectfully disagree with the EBID proposal as currently written.
Cathy Murillo is a member of the Santa Barbara City Council and invites the Open Letter signatories (or anyone pro or con on this issue) to contact her by calling (805) 564-5318.