Oil Mining, Village Centers Debated
by Martha Sadler
Santa Barbara County’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Michael Brown (pictured) demonstrated his continual ability to centralize power during Monday’s budget hearing, tucking a controversial agenda into a reassuringly secure budget that even places $12 million in reserves. Thanks to Santa Barbara’s tirelessly rising property values and a state budget expected to pass through the legislature on time for the first time since 1986, the CEO presented the Board of Supervisors (BOS) with a virtually finished budget for 2007-08 that provoked little controversy during the first day of hearings. This is in contrast to the angst, pleading, and confusion that have historically characterized budget hearings as precious programs were tentatively slashed and reserves plundered, pending the arrival of the state budget.
Brown’s budget included plans to generate revenues as suggested by the Blue Ribbon Budget Task Force, a group of five private industry financial experts who the supervisors appointed last year to work closely with Brown on the budget. The task force concluded that the county would enter a serious “structural deficit” during the next five years, and made 20 recommendations for cutting costs and generating revenue. Oil development, “village centers” in rural areas, auto malls, and labor outsourcing are among the suggestions that will likely generate strong resistance — especially from the conservation-minded South County — if county residents ever get a chance debate them before the board.
One gauge of Brown’s ability to lead the board by the nose is the fact that some of these potentially controversial projects made it into the proposed budget without being adopted as policy. In fact, it came as a surprise to supervisors that staff had already gotten the ball rolling on several of these suggestions. When the task force’s 71-page report was formally presented on May 2, the supervisors ceremoniously commended the volunteer team for their work, concluding with board chair and 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray’s comment that the supervisors would keep the report close at hand as they crafted the budget. That was as close as the suggestions came to a vote.
Monday’s budget packet included a color-coded chart illustrating the status of the task force’s recommendations. Information technology, human resources consolidation, and streamlined land-use permit processing were dark green, indicating “in progress;” village centers were light green, indicating “in progress ongoing;” and low-impact oil development was yellow, indicating “planned.” The two South County supervisors tried with limited success to quiz Brown more specifically on the county’s pursuit of oil development and village centers. When 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal asked what it meant that oil development was “planned,” Brown mumbled that the colors were not precisely defined and that the yellow should perhaps be changed to blue, indicating it needed further policy direction from the board. Auditor Bob Geis clarified that staff is merely looking into the possibility of revenue sharing with Vahevale, a land-based North County oil project. Brown said the project will generate “billions and billions of barrels if they get permission.” Carbajal later asked if Brown had prioritized the projects, or if he wanted the board to do so. “Well, in fact, in directions to me, the board has pretty much put the green ones in play,” said Brown. “So in a way, we’ve picked already, or I have, or somebody has.”
Second District Supervisor Susan Rose asked several times for clarification on the staff’s procedures for developing village centers, and insisted she would prefer interim reports rather than one large report at the end. In response, Gray quipped, “You don’t like our village centers? Well, I’m sure the folks in Goleta [whom Rose represents] would like us to withdraw village centers so we can go back to putting housing in Noleta.” Rose said her reservations were based on tours of village centers in other parts of the southwest that seemed to be exclusive enclaves for wealthy retirees, devoid of affordable housing and any industry aside from high-end retail. However, Rose also praised village centers as having a far greater revenue-generating potential than oil development. “It was just a question about the process,” she said.
The proposed budget’s major pitfalls, according to Brown, are the lack of funding for a new county jail and gaps in the public health budget. The hearings are scheduled to continue Wednesday, with final board discussion and decisions on Friday.