The current plastic straw debate is an example of the Santa Barbara City Council's inability to deal with priority problems. In my frustration, I missed the opportunity to properly communicate my position on regulation. To be clear, I reject the idea of over-regulation.
Working in East Germany in 1989, shortly before the Berlin Wall came down, I witnessed firsthand disastrous government overreach of authority. Decades later, at a war crimes tribunal, I prosecuted politicians, who, under cover of authority, caused murder, rape, and destruction of communities. Thankfully, truly evil governments are rare, but all governments occasionally stumble.
While that might seem unrelated, it sets the backdrop to my words last month at City Council. The Santa Barbara City Council needs to stop clutching at straws and deal with priority problems and the current “plastic straw debate” is an example.
If there’s a sucking sound coming from City Council lately, it's from being stuck on critical policy issues:
• It has been unable to deal with the mentally ill and the addicts living on our sidewalks and in parks.
• It hasn’t addressed the out of control development that is causing traffic problems and parking issues, without providing workforce housing or reducing people’s commutes.
• It is unable to rein in soaring water, trash, and waste-water rates.
• Missing how to revitalize State Street.
• It is missing serious policy decisions about utilities, forest management and preventing fires.
• We were a leader in the green movement yet have fallen behind as an incubator in green businesses.
One of my degrees is in environmental law. With the current plastic straw debate, will banning plastic stirrers reduce waste in the ocean when we're adding thousands of new trash producers to town and filling the landfill that much faster? My concern is that it’s now harder than ever for nurses, teachers, firefighters, and restaurant and hotel workers to find housing. Many more are forced to live, and drive in from, out of town, which increases air pollution and greenhouse gasses, not to mention decreasing time spent with families. I spent much of my first term fighting the out-of-control developments around town, which are failing to produce the benefits expected. With new studios at $1,900, they’re not producing affordable housing, just more traffic and air pollution. Where is the outcry?
With these straws in the wind, City Council is absolved of its failure to clarify priorities. Did you know that Santa Barbara trash rate increases will be going through the roof? Why? We were recently paying $87 per ton to dispose of trash at Tajiguas. A vendor for a landfill extension bid on a proposal offered at under $100/ton. Now, our cost has increased to an estimated $170-$180 per ton, a significant jump since just May. This is going to cost ratepayers $100 million-$200 million, at least a $12-$15 increase per month when it’s all said and done (more than a 25 percent increase).
Rates will likely increase yet again during construction, raising the monthly trash bill yet again. The initial contract was for 22 years of a landfill. Now we are only getting 15 years or less, dspite the skyrocketing rates. And in 15 years, when that landfill is full, we’re going to have to start over again somewhere else. This project failed to include much-needed efforts to reduce the waste stream, and the vendor won’t guarantee that it can sell the compost or recyclables that it promises will keep rates down. If they can’t, we will be sucking on an empty cup. City Council’s unwillingness to recognize this kicks the can down the road. Both Community Envronmental Council and Gaviota Coastal Conservancy raised serious concerns. Particularly hard hit will be working families in the service economy. Like all, they are already enduring soaing water rate increases because of the drought.
State Street is another neglected issue. The city hasn’t dealt with a flood of vacancies or sucessfully replaced Macy’s. We missed the opportunity to have a community meeting to dicuss the vision for it and for tomorrow’s downtown. The perception exists that new businesses are difficult to get up and running quickly, which discourages investment around town.
While it is very important that we protect the environment, we have to take care of these critical issues immediately. The impacts to the local environment and economy by not fixing these problems are sobering. Of all these issues, which will be the one to break the camel’s back?
Jason Dominguez is a councilmember for the City of Santa Barbara.