Every year it seems, the Santa Barbara City Council’s budget deliberations are commandeered by some unanticipated “wild hair” issue, injecting a degree of passion, color, and controversy into the proceedings that is often disproportionate to the actual dollars involved. It was Councilmember Randy Rowse’s painful misfortune to provide fuel for such fodder this year, galvanizing an instant and outraged uproar among Santa Barbara’s environmental community by suggesting City Hall “raid” the city’s clean-creeks fund — overwhelmingly approved by voters 13 years ago — to the tune of $400,000 to pay for power washing State Street and defray some of the costs associated with running the State Street shuttle.
Even before this Monday’s special council meeting was called to order, Rowse knew his plan was dead on arrival. Rather than pull the plug outright, however, he suggested the matter be tabled and referred to the council’s Finance Committee for further discussion. But even that face-saving alternative could find no traction. Environmentalists argued the idea should be killed outright. Councilmember Cathy Murillo, holding down the left end of the political spectrum on the council, mused, “Kill is a strong word,” and then made it clear that’s exactly what she wanted to happen to Rowse’s idea.
The theatrics of this showdown notwithstanding, this year’s budget process proved relatively pain free and positive. That’s because, for the first time in six years, there was an actual surplus of $500,000. New tax revenues have been pouring in far faster than city budget planners anticipated. While City Hall managed to squeak through the recession relatively unscathed compared to other government entities, 80 positions did disappear from the payroll and about $10 million was lopped from the General Fund.
The “hard choices” confronting the council this year had to do with what programs should be restored. To the extent push came to shove, it was over Police Chief Cam Sanchez’s request for two new sworn officers — motorized beat cops who would be assigned to make their presence felt on the sidewalks of State and Milpas streets astride electric motorized Trikkes. Councilmembers Murillo and Grant House ardently opposed the new officers, who, combined, would cost $290,000. Public safety, they argued, had been shielded from the cuts and other departments — Parks & Recreation, the Public Library System — needed to be restored.
Sanchez countered that business interests wanted more officers, and Councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse vigorously agreed, arguing public safety came first. But Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmembers Bendy White and Dale Francisco successfully pushed to split the baby in half; as a result, Sanchez wound up with one additional officer, bringing his total troop strength to 142. Sanchez later noted that he now has more cops healthy and on patrol than at anytime in the past 10 years.
“I know it’s your job to be conservative,” she said, “but I was elected not to be conservative.”
Murillo unsuccessfully encouraged her colleagues to require the new officer be assigned to deal with the homeless. Sanchez objected, stating he already had 14 officers so assigned. Murillo questioned that number and suggested it wasn’t factual, causing Sanchez to tighten up and bristle. Murillo would also challenge city budget czar Bob Samario, trying to get him to admit city revenues would actually be much higher than he indicated. “I know it’s your job to be conservative,” she said, “but I was elected not to be conservative.” However impolitic, Murillo’s contention has been borne out over the years; in a typical year, City Hall ends the year with a healthy balance.
The Parks & Recreation Department was the other big winner, receiving $130,000 of the surplus $500,000. Of all departments, it took the biggest hit during the recession, losing $3 million in General Fund contributions. The Library System got a funding bump worth nearly $100,000; the Arts Commission got $10,000, the courthouse mural restoration $10,000, and the Conference and Visitors Bureau $5,000.
Even among this plenty, Rowse expressed worries that the city’s Downtown Parking District — which underwrites much of the State Street power-washing program — is about to fall on hard times. That’s because one of the Parking District’s major funders — the Redevelopment Agency — was recently forced to dissolve. Currently, the Parking District contracts with the Downtown Organization to power wash State Street. (Rowse served on the Downtown Organization board for many years.)
To ensure that State Street remains clean and scrubbed in the face of this uncertainty, Rowse suggested tapping into the pool of bed-tax dollars collected from tourists staying at Santa Barbara hotels and motels — initially approved by city voters in 2000 in the form of Measure B — that funds myriad creek cleanup efforts. Measure B generates about $3 million in bed taxes and leverages about twice that in matching grants. Shortly after Measure B was approved, strict guidelines were enacted to prevent its funds from being spent on existing city programs. It has been spent, among other things, to pay for the city’s street-sweeping program.
But according to the Environmental Defense Center’s Brian Trautwein — who led the charge to stop Rowse’s proposal — there’s a vast environmental difference between street sweeping and power washing. Power washing, he argued, degrades the water quality of nearby creeks because contaminants get washed down the storm drains, into the creeks, and out to the beach. Street sweepers suck up the water they use. Accordingly, the Downtown Organization is required by its state permit to capture all the water used in power washing.
But according to Trautwein — and others who also spoke against Rowse’s proposal — that permit condition doesn’t always get followed. Trautwein stated he showed Cameron Benson, the head of the city’s Creeks Division overseeing the Measure B programs, such a violation taking place last Friday. For Benson, it was an uncomfortable spot; if the Downtown Organization was routinely allowing dirty water into the creeks, then it was his job to know it and do something about it. When pressed, Benson confirmed only that he had seen uncontained “power wash” water on State Street that had been allowed to flow into the gutters. But he denied he saw any of it go down the storm drains.
Schneider sought to engineer a face-saving exit for Rowse by proposing some future talk fest where the council could explore future funding for MTD, what do without the Redevelopment Agency, and all aspects of Rowse’s plan except, of course, using any of the Measure B funds. Rowse exhibited little interest, and Schneider quickly had second thoughts, dismissing her own idea as “scope creep.” Although some fine print has yet to be signed, the council effectively approved a new budget weighing in at $110 million. Despite the dustups, the vote was unanimous.
This article was amended on 6/6/13 to reflect the fact that Murillo "tried to get" (not "got') Samario to admit that city revenues would be higher than indicated.