For the past 55 years, the Goleta West Sanitary District has provided sewage services for the western Goleta Valley, currently charging its single family rate payers $14 monthly. With its staff of six people serving an area that includes part of the City of Goleta, all of Isla Vista, and some other unincorporated areas, the district has hummed along without major incident, and has a sizable cash reserve handy for future infrastructure improvements.
But now, both the County of Santa Barbara and the City of Goleta – with their eyes on the district’s $1.6 million annual revenue stream and $30 million reserve – are examining the option of taking over sanitation operations. Goleta would assume responsibility for sewage service within its city limits, and the county would take over service in Isla Vista, giving them access to the portion of property taxes currently set aside for the Sanitary District. Although the county is technically supposed to act as an impartial third party in negotiations between the City of Goleta and the Sanitary District, that role has been challenged due to county staff’s interest in the revenue.
Concern was raised at Tuesday’s hearing, April 7, before the Board of Supervisors, about the wisdom of taking on a public utility that the Board of Supervisors and many others agree is well run. “I don’t believe that we in the county ought to take on the added burden of running a sewage district,” said 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno. Since the City of Goleta has already applied to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for a detachment of Goleta sewage services from the Goleta West Sanitary District, the County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on Tuesday to initiate the detachment for study, with county staff citing a statutory obligation to do so. “I don’t think we know enough about what the impacts would be to residents of unincorporated areas,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents Isla Vista and most of Goleta.
Asserting that sewage services could be run more effectively if the City of Goleta took over, City Manager Dan Singer asserted that administrative services already performed by the city would cut many of the costs incurred by running the district as an independent agency. “As a district, they still have a pretty high carrying cost,” he said. Representing the district, Steve Amerikaner countered that if the City of Goleta and the county took over portions of the district’s services, customers would see their rates triple or quadruple within the next five years. He also argued that street sweeping, currently provided by the district to reduce pollution from urban runoff, would not be continued by the financially troubled municipalities trying to assume control. “This does not solve the fiscal migraine you’re suffering, it adds to it,” he told county supervisors at Tuesday’s hearing.
The crux of Amerikaner’s presentation, however, concerned the $30 million savings account he said the district has set aside for capital improvements to sanitation infrastructure in coming years. Larry Meyer, a director on the Goleta West Sanitation District’s board, said that it’s better to pay for improvements, when they are needed, with money already possessed rather than using credit. “It’s about money,” said Amerikaner. “County staff sees two pots of gold here. One is the reserves that have been built up over the years, and secondly, the property tax stream that our district will receive in future years.” Meyer and others, including COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business) Executive Director Andrew Caldwell, said that California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits and other litigation are highly likely if control of sewage services is wrested from the district. “It may be legal, but is it ethical?” asked Caldwell of the option of detachment.