After hosting a spirited rally outside City Hall on Tuesday, Santa Barbara city workers wearing purple T-shirts bearing the insignia of Service Employees International Union Local 620 thronged the council chambers for the grand opening of the Santa Barbara City Council budget deliberations. One after the next, city workers termed the administration’s offer of a 3 percent raise — over two years — “a slap in the face” and demanded respect for keeping the streets cleaned, the spigots flowing, and the wastewater system functioning. To the extent Santa Barbara remains a special place, they stated, their sacrifice was the reason why.
With Santa Barbara’s excruciating cost of housing coupled with an inflation rate of 8.5 percent, some said they find themselves forced to decide between paying their utility bills and buying groceries. Union organizers said they were pushing for wage increases of 8 percent.
The words “challenging” and “tough” were thrown around with considerable frequency during Tuesday’s budget talks, with the costs of operating City Hall’s 1,074-person machine projected to outstrip the anticipated increase in revenues expected over the next few years. During the prior two years, City Hall saved money by keeping positions vacant; employees would often find themselves doing the work of two or three. Going forward, City Administrator Rebecca Bjork vowed “not to balance the budget on the backs of positions” anymore. If a position was worth doing, she said, it would be filled.
Many speakers noted how City Hall is losing experienced skilled workers to other jurisdictions, such as the City of Goleta. One prominent worker for the city’s water department stated in the past six months, seven of her colleagues had taken jobs elsewhere “They didn’t go to places like Texas or Oregon.”
Councilmembers now find themselves caught in a fiscal crossfire between members of the union who helped get many of them elected and escalating costs of benefits and pensions. According to the proposed budget, they confront a structural deficit of $3.8 million out of general budget of $186 million.
Bjork’s plan is to cut $1 million in spending — mostly by keeping certain positions vacant — take $1.3 million from reserves, and accrue the rest from vacant positions that prove difficult to fill. Union activists counter that City Hall has $300 million sitting in a bank account just earning interest. Over the next few weeks, the use and abuse of city reserves will get thoroughly debated.
One thing everyone agreed upon was that the new detailed online budget report, prepared by city finance director Keith DeMartini, was infinitely more accessible and transparent than prior budget documents, which one councilmember dismissed as “a black box, impossible to decipher and impossible to influence.”