Although the ink is far from dry on the City of Santa Barbara’s budget document for the coming year, it appears the awkwardly named Rental Housing Mediation Task Force has managed to dodge a bullet, at least for six months and probably closer to 12. In a preliminary vote, the council voted unanimously last Thursday to keep the task force — which for the past 35 years has offered free mediation services for landlords, tenants, and roommates — funded for half a year. In that time, task force staff and volunteers will be expected to brainstorm how best to secure alternative funding. This year, for the first time ever, the council agreed to tap its General Fund in order to keep the task force alive and kicking, however modestly and tentatively. In years past, the task force has been funded with federal Community Development Block Grant funds, but the flow of those revenues has dwindled to but a trickle of its former self in response to federal budgetary concerns.
Every year, it seems, there’s always a sleeper issue that commands a disproportionate share of public outcry relative to its actual price tag: Last year, it was animal control; the year before that, funding to keep an east side pool open in the summer months. This year, the rental task force is it. Initially on the table was a plan that would cut $60,000 from the program. Given that the total city budget weighs in at $287 million — and the city’s general fund at $103 million — this item, when judged in terms of absolute numbers, barely rises to the level of an asterisk. But in a town where renters make up more than half the population, the task force is seen as the court of last resort for those caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Two years ago, for example, 204 Modoc Road residents — largely very poor and Hispanic —received Christmas time eviction notices so that their new landlord could remodel the apartments and rent them out to new tenants capable of paying higher rents. The situation was both grim and volatile, but thanks to the mediation skills provided by volunteers associated with the task force, a compromise was achieved. The tenants were given more time to find new digs — plus some relocation assistance thrown in for good measure. In exchange, the landlord managed to avert what could have been a costly and ugly legal showdown. All the tenants left as they pledged they would, and the remodel was allowed to proceed.
Had the cuts initially proposed by city staff been adopted, the task force would have been effectively stripped of any mediation capabilities. The two part-time staff members who help organize the office would have been laid off, and the one remaining staff person would have been consigned to answering telephone queries regarding the relative rights and responsibilities for both tenants and landlords. City officials justified the initial cuts, pointing out that mediation makes up only 3-4 percent of the task force’s total workload. In that prism, it made little sense to absorb the staff cost involved in organizing the panel of volunteer mediators.
That may have made sense on paper, but when exposed to the light of public testimon, it quickly became politically unsupportable. Longtime mediators like Silvio Di Loreto, who’d been with the program from its inception, came out of the woodwork. They argued their service was both necessary and unique. No other organization had the neutral standing to offer both landlords and tenants a fair venue for hashing out their beefs. They boasted a 96 percent success rate, and they boasted of how much time and expense they saved all parties who might otherwise become embroiled in the courts. Plus, they argued, the mediators offered their services for free. “I have yet to see how you will save money by abolishing a trained board that works for free,” said one volunteer mediator to the City Council last Thursday.
When asked by Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss what other program he might cut instead to make up the difference, the mediator admitted he didn’t really know, but then suggested he might look at the city’s golf funds. With that, Hotchkiss, famous for his quick, no-nonsense questioning style, cut him off, stating, “Let’s cut this short; all the golfers already hate you.” While Councilmember Grant House supported funding the task force 100 percent, Councilmember Randy Rowse suggested that its administrators look at charging on a sliding scale to help recoup some of the costs. Currently, the service is provided free of charge. Councilmember Dale Francisco, leader of the council’s conservative majority, expressed support for the task force function, but suggested a private nonprofit could provide the same level of service at considerably less cost. Mayor Helene Schneider, leader of the council’s more liberal-minded minority, expressed concern that it would be much easier to eliminate the task force’s function altogether after it had been privatized. In the meantime, the task force received enough funding to maintain current level of services for six months. Funding for an additional six months will be provided upon a midyear review to determine what progress the task force has made in identifying and securing other sources of funding.
More challenging were council deliberations over proposed staffing increases for the police department. While there remains considerable disagreement among the councilmembers as to how many additional cops the city actually needs and can afford, one thing is certain: Santa Barbara will be increasing its law enforcement presence, largely in response to concerns from the business community that street people and panhandlers are scaring away customers. At a time when the Sheriff’s Department is proposing to cut 78 positions — and the City of Goleta just eliminated its patrol strength by two officers — the city of Santa Barbara is actually increasing its number of cops, and debating by what magnitude it needs to increase it even more.
By a vote of 6-1 — with House casting the sole dissenting vote — the council embraced plans to hire one additional beat cop to help Officer Keld Hove, who now deals exclusively with the homeless-transient populations. In addition, the proposed budget includes funding for three outreach workers — new positions — to help direct and connect street people with the appropriate services. It also includes funding for six “hosts,” who — dressed in golf shirts and pith helmets — will provide a quasi-police presence on State Street, Milpas Street, and the waterfront to discourage socially intrusive behavior that business owners complain is chasing customers away. And beyond that, the police department will reassign two officers now working desk jobs and put them back on patrol.
As usual, the councilmembers got sucked into the statistical quicksand involving the relative number of “authorized officers,” as opposed to actual troop strength. In this regard, there’s no shortage of facts and figures for either side of the debate as to how many cops the city needs. For the council majority that insists there are not enough, the facts are simple. Ten years ago, Santa Barbara had budgeted for 152 officers; this year, the number is 137. At times, it’s gotten as low as 128. For the council minority that worries more about the cost associated with hiring more cops, the facts are equally stark. Ten years ago, the police department consumed 44 percent of the city’s General Fund. Today, it’s up to 54 percent. And the city’s Type I crime rate — which measures the most serious crimes — was about the same then as it is now.
Last Thursday, Councilmember Francisco once again declared that 137 sworn officers was not sufficient. But unlike his previous calls to action, Francisco shied away from gutting other departments, one-time revenues sources, and reserves in order to pay for the additional officers. Instead, he settled for a momentary symbolic victory that’s pregnant with long-term implications. At Francisco’s instigation, the council agreed to increase the authorized number of sworn officers from 137. But in deference to concerns raised by the likes of Schneider, House, and Councilmember Bendy White — who worried where the extra $450,000 would come from to pay for these positions — Francisco agreed that the new positions would not be funded. In other words, even if they are phantom positions, they are written into perhaps the single most important document the council approves.
Down the road — without the budget deadline ticking loudly — the council will reexamine what other city functions would have to be gutted in order to pay for this additional cost. Francisco had also suggested creating a new ad hoc subcommittee to lift up the hood on the police department and examine its inner workings with an eye for efficiency improvements that might deliver better police service while keeps costs in check. That suggestion got no endorsement by his fellow councilmembers. Instead, it was suggested that the ad hoc subcommittee now looking at the cost of building a new police station — the current station house is too small and does not meet seismic safety requirements — might look at the cost of folding additional officers into any bond measure that would be required to cover a new station’s cost.
The council will meet two more times this week to discuss the city budget.