The great Goleta sewage swap is about to be stalled.
That’s what the Goleta City Council is likely to decide this afternoon, when staff will advise putting the brakes on the plan to take over sewage service for more than 5,000 parcels within its borders. The idea of forcefully detaching those parcels from the Goleta West Sanitary District and putting them under city control was about to be vetted before the County of Santa Barbara’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCo, on December 2. The hearing was likely to attract more than the usual attendees for a sewage decision, from city officials with dollar signs in their eyes and Goleta West employees fearing a loss of substantial revenue to residents worried about rate hikes and environmentalists concerned about financially gutting a district in the midst of eco-friendly work.
But the plug will be prematurely pulled by the City of Goleta due to a number of factors, according to city manager Dan Singer, who explained that the delay is in part tied to the County of Santa Barbara’s interests. Earlier this year, the county Board of Supervisors had asked for more information about Goleta’s proposal from LAFCo staff in order to determine whether the county should itself pursue detachment and run the sewage services in Isla Vista. They have yet to get that info, said Singer, although LAFCo’s Bob Braitman claimed on Monday that it was going to be part of the December 2 presentation and that the information would be forthcoming to the county as requested.
Additionally, Singer explained that the city and county are about to re-negotiate the existing Revenue Neutrality Agreement — which was created when the city incorporated in 2003 — and the city needs to hammer out the property tax proportion split before pursuing detachment. Currently, due to a historical quirk, Goleta West takes in about $1.7 million in property taxes every year above the fees it charges its users; detachment would free up that money, so the city wants to negotiate for a more favorable tax split with the county before taking over the sewage services. “We want to get that changed before we go to LAFCo,” said Singer, explaining that a February hearing date — which he argued for during an October hearing — would have given the city a better chance to prepare.
Then there is also the recent passage of Proposition 26, which makes it harder for jurisdictions to levy the sort of fees that could be required for Goleta to properly run a sewage system. “That may or may not have an impact, but we at least want a chance to evaluate that,” said Singer. “I don’t want to steer the council down a path than then has future problems because of that measure.” On top of all that, the staff believes that by suspending the application, Goleta West officials may finally meet with the city staff; the report says such meetings have been refused in the past.
The rescinding of the application, however, does not indicate that the City of Goleta won’t take up the detachment idea once these issues are worked through. According to the staff report, the application that LAFCo has deemed legally sufficient can simply be resubmitted when the time is right. If the revenue neutrality re-negotiation goes well and the county gets all the info it has requested, Singer explained, “Theoretically, it takes a matter of a few hours to dust off the application and resubmit it since it was already deemed complete. I might do a few things to tighten it up, but it could happen quickly.”
LAFCo’s Bob Braitman isn’t so sure that a re-submittal would move so fast. “What they’re doing is pulling the item from the agenda,” said Braitman. “They can, in the future, reapply, but they can’t reactivate this one. If they re-apply, it has to be a new application.” When asked whether the fact that the application had been deemed legally sufficient would have any bearing on a re-application, Braitman couldn’t comment on something he’d yet to see. “We’ll have to wait and see what comes in.”
Like Braitman, Goleta West officials took the news with a bit of shock, especially after last month’s fairly tenuous hearing in which City of Goleta officials pledged that they’d be ready for the December meeting. “It was a surprise,” said Goleta West’s general manager Mark Nation, whose only knowledge of the delay came from reading the agenda report. “That’s about as much as we know about it.”
Though he was happy at the news, Nation took issue with the allegation that the district had refused to meet with the city. “That whole thing is false,” said Nation, who said that the city proposed detachment before they ever offered to talk with the district. “It’s like, ‘Hey we’re pointing the gun at your head. Now let’s talk about it.’” Instead, Nation explained, “I don’t think that either side has had any meaningful meeting since the outset of this. We haven’t refused and they haven’t refused either. There hasn’t been this dialogue at all.”
Although he is “waiting to see what happens with real interest,” Nation wouldn’t say that the application’s suspension will immediately result in open meetings with the city staff. “Anything is possible,” he said. “Who knows what twists and turns it will take now?”
The city, however, is ready for the discussion to start. “We’re ready to sit down and talk,” said Singer, who recalled Goleta West’s attorney Steve Amerikaner claiming that the city wasn’t willing to talk in the last LAFCo hearing. “We’re earnest in our desire to do so, and we’ll just have to see. It takes two parties.”
The rescinding of the detachment proposal is part of the consent agenda, which is typically passed without much discussion at all. To read more, click here.
Also on the agenda this afternoon are the initiation of a $300,000 environmental impact report for the mixed-use Westar property, which is where more than 90,000 square feet of commercial space and nearly 300 units are proposed across Hollister Avenue from the Camino Real Marketplace; an update on the design of Fire Station 10, which is to be located out near Sandpiper Golf Course; closed session items on property negotiations and anticipate litigation; and, in the evening session, an item to allow Fairview Gardens to give quarterly rather than monthly reports on its status and a hearing on the contentious housing element amendments.