New Tax for $400 Million in Repairs?

City Contracts with Polling Firm to Determine Public’s Level of Support

After balking on similar commitments twice before in recent years, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to hire one of the top two political polling firms in California to determine the extent of support for a new tax to address the city’s $400 million backlog of unfunded infrastructure improvements.

The council approved a $36,000 contract with Godbe Research to contact 600 voters to determine how concerned they are by the state of the city’s infrastructure, their willingness to tax themselves to pay for improvements, by how much, and for what projects specifically. In more than 20 public meetings conducted by city administrators, support was there for increased funding for streets and sidewalks, and to a lesser extent, for a new seismically sound police station.

The poll was deemed necessary because those attending such meetings — self-selecting civic wonks — may not reflect the sentiments of voters at large. The most obvious funding mechanism under consideration is a sales tax surcharge, but an increase in the bed tax — or a parcel tax — has been discussed as well. City administrators are anxious to get something on this November’s ballot, anticipating that the school district will seek a sales tax increase the year after.

Adding to the anxiety, this year will mark the first election in which councilmembers are elected by district rather than at large, meaning only one-half of city residents will have a candidate to vote for. (In at-large elections, all city residents vote for their top three candidates; in district elections, candidates run for specific geographic precincts and only the voters of those areas can cast ballots.)

What effect this new voting scheme will have on voter turnout — and which voters show up at the polls — is difficult to predict.

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