Councilmembers Meaghan Harmon (left) and Kristen Sneddon fiercely but unsuccessfully argued against putting $7.3 million of the surplus budget toward general fund reserves. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

After a wild procedural roller coaster ride, the Santa Barbara City Council finally figured out how they wanted to slice and dice the $14.6 million budget surplus — or budget windfall, depending on the nomenclature one prefers. 

The council didn’t quite cut the baby in half, more like into four pieces though decidedly not of equal size. Half the money — $7.3 million — will go to the general fund reserves despite some fierce argument from the likes of councilmembers Meagan Harmon and Kristen Sneddon that was too much. There will be $1.8 million going to pensions — expected to spike considerably in the next couple of years — and another $1.8 million will go to bumping pay for city employees, many of whom have been jumping ship in several key departments. 

The big news — pushed hard by tenants’ rights groups like CAUSE and SBCAN — is that $3.6 million will go to the creation of a housing trust fund that over time will be used as a crowbar (albeit a small one) to leverage matching funds for the development of affordable housing projects. In prior years, such funding came from the city’s Redevelopment Agency, but former governor Jerry Brown effectively eliminated all redevelopment agencies throughout the state during his first term of office, using the proceeds to fund schools instead. 

From that trust fund, $250,000 will be extracted for the creation of a program designed to provide tenants facing eviction with legal counsel. How exactly this plays out has yet to be determined.

Also on the table for discussion at one point was a proposal pushed by Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez to fund a rental housing voucher program to function analogously to Section 8 vouchers. That proposal did not secure the votes needed. 

Adding an element of procedural suspense to the proceeding was the absence of Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez. Without Gutierrez’s vote, the councilmembers found themselves deadlocked 3-to-3 at various times. Typically, that played out with Mayor Randy Rowse and councilmembers Michael Jordan and Eric Friedman pushing more for fiscal restraint and with councilmembers Harmon, Sneddon, and Oscar Gutierrez pushing harder for housing and tenant protection. 

Ultimately, however, the vote was 5-to-1 for the total package, with Mayor Rowse casting the sole dissenting vote. 

The surplus came about thanks to record revenues City Hall reaped in the form of bed taxes — the fees charged to motel, hotel, and vacation rental guests within city limits — and sales taxes. 

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