Mayor Cathy Murillo | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Santa Barbara City Council voted to give itself a 2.6 percent pay increase when City Hall’s projected budget for the new year is $7.5 million in the hole, mostly due to the impacts of the COVID pandemic on local tourism.

The uncomfortable optics of the decision notwithstanding, the amount involved is less than $2,500. The mayor will see a $62 a week pay bump and the councilmembers an increase just shy of $50.

In Santa Barbara, the council pay is dictated by city charter, not by the council itself. It goes up or down automatically based on fluctuations of the Area Median Income. The council vote ratifies those fluctuations.

Last year’s increase of 10 percent, however, elicited significant discomfort among councilmembers, many of whom pledged to donate all or some of their raises back to the general fund or to nonprofits such as the Santa Barbara Library Foundation. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez inquired whether that option was still available to councilmembers, and he was told it was.

Even though the City of Santa Barbara is slated to receive $22 million from the American Rescue Plan — $11 million this year and $11 million the next — City Hall has incurred $25 million in revenue losses because of COVID-19. City Administrator Paul Casey said Santa Barbara has been hit harder than any other local government in the tri-counties, citing the intensity with which the Santa Barbara economy relies on the tourist dollar.

This week, the council’s Finance Committee voted unanimously to recommend the rescue revenues be used to replenish badly depleted reserves, now $14 million less than what council policy dictates. Even so, Councilmember Meagan Harmon questioned the wisdom of putting all the federal windfall into reserves. “Is there something important that our neighbors need to help them get through this moment that these funds can provide?” When the matter gets to the council as a whole, that debate will begin in earnest.

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