Governor Jerry Brown announced that he would help backfill Santa Barbara County property taxes lost because of the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow with funds from this year’s unprecedented budget surplus. Brown said tax collectors reaped a budget surplus of $9 billion, about $3 billion more than projected. At first blush, however, it appears the amount Brown has set aside won’t be quite enough. “That sock doesn’t quite cover our feet,” said county administrator Dennis Bozanich, who noted that Brown had set aside $11 million to help four Southern California counties defray lost property taxes caused by recent natural disasters. That money, he said, is supposed to cover actual losses for this year and anticipated losses for next year. In Santa Barbara, that comes to about $6.5 million.
Bozanich said county officials have been in discussion with Brown’s office via California’s association of county governments. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s office is likewise engaged. County officials have been aggressively lobbying for this relief. It remains uncertain, however, how much relief the governor’s proposal offers local schools, particularly Cold Spring and Montecito Union elementaries, both of which are preparing for budget hits of roughly 10 percent.
Also in response to last year’s massive wildfires, state legislators are feeling serious lobbying heat from utility companies, such as SoCal Edison and PG&E, to change the state’s inverse condemnation laws that leave utilities exposed to significant liability from lawsuits. Both utility companies have threatened to declare bankruptcy if such legislative relief is not forthcoming; both have been hit by massive litigation in the wake of the 2017-2018 fires for failure to maintain infrastructure in safe operating condition. Inverse condemnation laws expedite the delivery of relief, sparing the injured parties years of legal wrangling in the courts. No bill has yet been introduced, but Senator Jackson confirmed interest is intense. No one wants to see utility companies go belly-up, she said, but there may be other ways to provide protection.