City leaders gave Santa Barbara a relatively clean bill of health at their annual State of the City address, but with a few key caveats.
City Administrator Paul Casey reported Thursday over breakfast at the DoubleTree Resort that Santa Barbara’s fiscal reserves are fully funded for the first time since 2005, though some staffing and income levels have still not recovered since the recession. Sales tax revenues are decent but hurting from online shopping, and hotel taxes have been “stellar” but starting to lag as well, Casey said. Property taxes are stable.
While the waterfront is in good shape — with Marina 1 getting a full makeover and 31 cruise ships expected this year — the airport faces some significant challenges. Passenger numbers are down, and airlines across the country are cutting service to midsize airports like Santa Barbara’s, Casey went on.
Infrastructure needs pose even more problems. The police station, fire stations, and a number of streets need to be overhauled or completely replaced, but the funds don’t exist. The repaving of Las Positas Road with a new, more durable surface material took one-third of the city’s street budget for the entire year. And prices for regular asphalt are up.
In a video message played to the packed conference room, water manager Joshua Haggmark talked about the city’s desalination plant. He said Santa Barbara has yet to decide if the plant will play a critical water-delivery role just during times of drought, or if it will remain a long-term solution to chronic supply shortages. Desal plants are common worldwide, Haggmark noted, but have been slow to take hold in the U.S.
Refurbishing the city’s old facility back into working order will cost much less than if Santa Barbara had to build a whole new plant — $55 million versus $100 million. The plant will have the capacity to deliver 10,000 acre-feet of water annually, but it will likely generate more in the neighborhood of 3,000 a year, which is 30 percent of the city’s water supply, Haggmark said. Construction is on schedule and on budget, and deliveries are scheduled to start this October.
Mayor Helene Schneider proudly reported that Santa Barbara’s reduction in water consumption — 34 percent — has attracted national attention. She said the city is continuing the preservation trend by installing permeable sidewalks with plans to replace flood-prone Quarantina Street with similarly porous surfaces that soak up rainfall rather than divert it to storm drains. Aging and breaking water mains and power equipment, however, continue to cause problems. The city is replacing one percent of its pipes every year, and Southern California Edison has pledged to spend $11 million upgrading the downtown grid.
Schneider ran through the major milestones of 2015 — a shift to district elections, disappointing El Niño rainfall, and a quick end to the Gibraltar Fire. Looking ahead, she said she wants to make Santa Barbara more business friendly by removing red tape and soliciting feedback from new and established company owners.
Schneider touted the city’s reputation for sustainability, mentioning a recent recognition from Sunset magazine as a strong supporter of green initiatives. She said Santa Barbara now gets 37 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and its car fleet is fully one-third electric, which saves $541,000 a year on gas. More government buildings are installing solar panels, and 220 area business and schools are composting.
The mayor also spoke of Santa Barbara’s rich art scene. The city donated $8 million toward the renovations of the Granada, New Vic, and Lobero theaters, which leaders saw as a sound business investment, “not just frill.” The annual economic impact of the arts community and its many programs—like Summer Solstice, the Film Festival, and so on — is $121 million a year, Schneider said.
She spoke of emerging creative spaces, like SBCAST and the Community Arts Workshop, then asked: “I wonder what they will come up with next?” On cue, four members of the Santa Barbara Opera jumped up from their tables and sang “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” to loud applause.
Lingering issues like homelessness, gang crime, and noise issues were also addressed. Schneider said crime levels are down to 1980 levels, and gang activity has decreased dramatically. The city is marketing more to potential recruits to fill the many vacancies in the Police Department. A new noise ordinance just went into effect that will help curb complaints from residents living near rowdy college students, she said.
Community service officers are making progress with service-resistant transients, Schneider went on, with the C3H organization helping a total of 404 clients finds housing. Feeding the hungry, though, remains an issue — of California’s 58 counties, Santa Barbara ranks 12th in agricultural sales but in the bottom 14 for food security.
As the Bicycle Master Plan takes a few steps back to address complaints over new routes, Schneider was happy to note that construction on La Entrada hotel on lower State Street have finally begun, after years of protracted delays. The hotel will boast 123 rooms and 20,000 feet of commercial space. She also spoke of plans to renovate the Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center, inside and out. The project is expected to cost $13 million, with $9 million already secured and the remaining $4 million expected to come from fundraising.