After much frustration and speechifying about what kind of sales tax increase ballot measure they could and could not support, members of the Santa Barbara City Council voted 5-2 to discuss specific proposals at a later date, though it remains highly uncertain anything yet envisioned could garner the supermajority required to put such a matter to voters this November. The councilmembers all agree there are about $450 million worth of unfunded infrastructure needs. On the table is a plan to raise about half that over 20 years via a half-cent sales tax increase that would generate about $11 million a year. A pollster hired by City Hall indicated 64 percent of likely voters would support such a matter. After that, things fell apart.
To put a sales tax on this November’s ballot would require five council votes. Currently, there are only four solid votes. Councilmember Dale Francisco, an ardent fiscal conservative, said he could be persuaded to support a sales tax bump, but only if major cuts were made to city programs he deemed nonessential — anything outside of public safety and infrastructure. On the other side of the aisle, Councilmember Gregg Hart objected that the proposal constituted a form of “bait-and-switch.” By that, he meant future councils would not be legally bound to spend the funds generated on infrastructure needs.
Mayor Helene Schneider got nowhere fast with her “the enemy of the good is the perfect” argument in support of the measure. Hart was joined by Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, leaving Councilmember Randy Rowse — who put in serious hours working numerous public forums about City Hall’s pressing infrastructure needs — visibly upset. Rowse scolded fellow councilmembers for not making such concerns known before dispatching him out onto the public workshop circuit. And Councilmember Bendy White, a true believer where infrastructure is concerned, was so desperate to salvage anything that he agreed to negotiate with Councilmember Francisco on serious cuts to the city’s budget.
The sour gas emanating from these deliberations wafted into subsequent deliberations over a proposal to shift City Council elections from odd years to even years. There’s general agreement that voter turnout is appreciably higher during even-year elections, but there was nothing but discord on what year such a transition should start. Hart pushed for 2016. That would have short-changed the terms of Schneider, White, and Hotchkiss by one year and got little traction. Nothing else did either, and ultimately the council gave up, postponing future discussion to another day.