This opinion piece from Tom Widroe is reprinted from the Santa Barbara News Press July 26th, 2015…
Comparing modern-day Santa Barbara to the dystopian future portrayed in Hollywood’s latest sci-fi blockbuster, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” might seem like a stretch. However, maybe not — considering the gravely, deteriorated condition of our streets, sidewalks, roads and bridges.
From San Roque to Hope Ranch, from the Mesa down to State Street, from the East Side to the West Side and just about everywhere in between, we can literally feel the decay beneath our wheels and beneath our feet.
According to a recent report by city staff, the condition of our infrastructure now ranks us in the 65th percentile as compared to other locales across the rest of the state. Considering Santa Barbara takes great pride in doing things better than the rest, the desultory assessment is a grim and embarrassing reminder that all is not well in paradise.
The good news is that Mayor Helene Schneider and the City Council clearly recognize the problem and seem committed to getting us back on track. The not-so-good news is that accomplishing this task takes money, and lots of it. Road maintenance is backlogged to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars.
Based on a survey commissioned by the city, council members believe that the public has an appetite to vote this November in favor of a half-cent sales tax increase. This tax would generate $7 million per year over the course of two decades, eventually pulling in a whopping $140 million, an amount that would help resolve much of the problem, though not all of it.
Now, while a half-cent might not seem like much, it really is substantial considering this increase would push Santa Barbara’s total sales tax to 8.5 percent, the highest in the county and among the highest in the entire state of California. Not only that, as local economist Dr. Lanny Ebenstein testified in front of the council recently, sales tax is regressive in that it puts the bulk of the burden for improvements on the backs of those who can least afford it.
Perhaps even more problematic is that the certain council members favor a general ballot measure, one that requires for approval a mere 50 percent-plus-one majority to pass, versus a specific ballot measure which necessitates a two-thirds majority in order to pass and become law.
The trouble is that with a general ballot measure, the revenue generated by the tax increase goes straight into the general fund, and thus can be spent on just about anything other than fixing our roads. Any proposed oversight committee to govern this expenditure is meaningless as the unelected body has zero authority and can be disbanded at the whim of future councils.
City Watch shares the council’s concern for our dilapidated roads and streets. However, before supporting a multimillion-dollar tax increase, we challenge our representatives at the city to do better — much better.
First, they need to look at each and every line item in the budget and excise all non-essential expenditures and apply the savings towards fixing the problem. For example, the city spends close to $400,000 a year owning and operating a public access TV channel, a quaint relic in the era of free digital expression online at places like YouTube and Vimeo.
The council should also take a close look at the resolution enacted by the Board of Supervisors addressing the county’s own massive road maintenance problem in the various unincorporated areas. In allocating 18 percent of future revenue growth for infrastructure repair, they did something that’s far too rare in public policy these days by planning for the long term without raising taxes.
While our immediate future so far looks nothing like the celluloid world of Mad Max, there is a little truth to be learned in science fiction. A prosperous society such as our own is at least in part symbolized by the condition of our highways and byways. We literally cannot afford to let things get any worse and the longer we wait to fix the roads, the more expensive it gets.
It is time to get back to basics by putting as much of our city’s resources as possible toward repairing our crumbling infrastructure. Once this is accomplished, the council can credibly go to the voters with a tax increase to make up the difference. This way, any ensuing ballot measure would be air-tight in concept and detail, a specific proposal that would likely have a very good chance of garnering the necessary support of a full two-thirds of the voters here in the city of Santa Barbara.
Tom Widroe has been active in Santa Barbara County business and public policy for over 25 years.
The author is managing director of City Watch.