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Executive Decisions

Oil Mining, Village Centers Debated

by Martha Sadler

Santa Barbara County’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Michael
Brown (pictured) demonstrated his continual ability to centralize
power during Monday’s budget hearing, tucking a controversial
agenda into a reassuringly secure budget that even places $12
million in reserves. Thanks to Santa Barbara’s tirelessly rising
property values and a state budget expected to pass through the
legislature on time for the first time since 1986, the CEO
presented the Board of Supervisors (BOS) with a virtually finished
budget for 2007-08 that provoked little controversy during the
first day of hearings. This is in contrast to the angst, pleading,
and confusion that have historically characterized budget hearings
as precious programs were tentatively slashed and reserves
plundered, pending the arrival of the state budget.

Brown’s budget included plans to generate revenues as suggested
by the Blue Ribbon Budget Task Force, a group of five private
industry financial experts who the supervisors appointed last year
to work closely with Brown on the budget. The task force concluded
that the county would enter a serious “structural deficit” during
the next five years, and made 20 recommendations for cutting costs
and generating revenue. Oil development, “village centers” in rural
areas, auto malls, and labor outsourcing are among the suggestions
that will likely generate strong resistance — especially from the
conservation-minded South County — if county residents ever get a
chance debate them before the board.

One gauge of Brown’s ability to lead the board by the nose is
the fact that some of these potentially controversial projects made
it into the proposed budget without being adopted as policy. In
fact, it came as a surprise to supervisors that staff had already
gotten the ball rolling on several of these suggestions. When the
task force’s 71-page report was formally presented on May 2, the
supervisors ceremoniously commended the volunteer team for their
work, concluding with board chair and 4th District Supervisor Joni
Gray’s comment that the supervisors would keep the report close at
hand as they crafted the budget. That was as close as the
suggestions came to a vote.

Monday’s budget packet included a color-coded chart illustrating
the status of the task force’s recommendations. Information
technology, human resources consolidation, and streamlined land-use
permit processing were dark green, indicating “in progress;”
village centers were light green, indicating “in progress ongoing;”
and low-impact oil development was yellow, indicating “planned.”
The two South County supervisors tried with limited success to quiz
Brown more specifically on the county’s pursuit of oil development
and village centers. When 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal
asked what it meant that oil development was “planned,” Brown
mumbled that the colors were not precisely defined and that the
yellow should perhaps be changed to blue, indicating it needed
further policy direction from the board. Auditor Bob Geis clarified
that staff is merely looking into the possibility of revenue
sharing with Vahevale, a land-based North County oil project. Brown
said the project will generate “billions and billions of barrels if
they get permission.” Carbajal later asked if Brown had prioritized
the projects, or if he wanted the board to do so. “Well, in fact,
in directions to me, the board has pretty much put the green ones
in play,” said Brown. “So in a way, we’ve picked already, or I
have, or somebody has.”

Second District Supervisor Susan Rose asked several times for
clarification on the staff’s procedures for developing village
centers, and insisted she would prefer interim reports rather than
one large report at the end. In response, Gray quipped, “You don’t
like our village centers? Well, I’m sure the folks in Goleta [whom
Rose represents] would like us to withdraw village centers so we
can go back to putting housing in Noleta.” Rose said her
reservations were based on tours of village centers in other parts
of the southwest that seemed to be exclusive enclaves for wealthy
retirees, devoid of affordable housing and any industry aside from
high-end retail. However, Rose also praised village centers as
having a far greater revenue-generating potential than oil
development. “It was just a question about the process,” she
said.

The proposed budget’s major pitfalls, according to Brown, are
the lack of funding for a new county jail and gaps in the public
health budget. The hearings are scheduled to continue Wednesday,
with final board discussion and decisions on Friday.

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