The Misnomer Revenue Workshop
On February 25th I read a Noozhawk article by Giana Magnoli which mentioned a “workshop for public input on new revenue measures”scheduled for “9 a.m. on Wednesday March 13.” The date & time seemed odd to me if it was in fact meant for public input since MANY members of the public often work at that time. I marked it on my calendar anyways and figured I’d look up the location closer to the date. I imagined that such a workshop would be held at city hall or possibly at the planning department on Garden St. I looked up the location, and in fact announcements of this meeting and they were nowhere to be found – and my searches are as good as that of any private investigator. I emailed the city staff member quoted in the article and she replied within a short time frame. Whew! The location: Chase Palm Park Center at 236 E. Cabrillo Blvd. Never would’ve guessed it!
Staff presentation plus clarifications to councilmembers’ questions lasted about an hour and 15 minutes followed by public comment. (Watch entire meeting here). Almost every department head was present, as well as members of the ‘Santa Barbara press corps’ and maybe 6 members of the public in addition to myself – most known to mill around city hall and these issues…
It turns out this public workshop was far from what the public perceives as a workshop. Workshops, when they’re intended for the public are held at a convenient time for people (often Saturdays around 9) and allow for a process to occur where the public provides feedback in a way that is interactive and useful to other attendees, staff and decision makers. I’m thinking of workshops that lead to general plans, traffic configurations and such. This is the kind of workshop I had in mind – and why not have such workshops with easels, flip charts and cookies? After all, economic drivers impact all of us.
Independent of the regressive taxes being proposed, or the ‘ Analysis of Regional & State Initiatives and Election Timing Considerations, a.k.a political calculus presented, a true workshop would provide interested (and curious) members of the public the opportunity to participate in a dialogue about matters that affect them – taxes. Would the anti-tax constituency come out? Absolutely. Would a ‘pro-tax’ constituency turn out in masses, probably not, but there would be a decent turn out and therefore, the kind of dialogue that needs to occur. As it stands, the workshop established that we ‘need’ $10 million more in annual revenue to spend in x, y and z manner and it can be raised by a variety of methods of which a ‘sales tax’ is most likely to succeed. In a lively dialogue each of these conjectures would be dissected and discussed.
At the end of the day, councilmembers’ hands wouldn’t be tied to making a decision, but rather the open process would help them in moving forward. Only by engaging a wider public in the big decisions, can there be buy-in if at all, and therefore collaboration between the people and the council it elects rather than a reinforced top down engagement that is perceived.
Noozhawk covered the workshop and called it as such, and The Santa Barbara Independent called it a ‘special meeting’. And yesterday, the City of Santa Barbara’s Newsletter included a link to the ‘work session’. The fact is that when readers see this information presented as something that happened that they missed, it then sounds like a process that is happening – in the way that it should – with public input, when in fact, it is very far from what is being reported.
Content of the ‘Workshop’
For those that missed the workshop (which is everyone but 6 people) here’s a recap. The work session included a very elucidating presentation by staff that established in short, our city sales tax revenue is rebounding slowly but almost returning to 2008 levels, as well as the property tax revenue, and our General Fund Reserves are slowly recovering. The reports is that there is ‘No immediate financial crisis‘. There are reasons however, ‘why the council may want to consider a new revenue stream‘ including Service Enhancements, Unfunded & Underfunded Capital Projects and to make up for impacts from the loss of Redevelopment Agency Funds (which fund downtown improvements). The next slide showed ‘Possible use of $10 million annually‘. Not exactly sure as to where the figure comes from, since there are no breadcrumbs back to the reasoning. The possible use of the money was presented by staff to the council it included: Service Enhancement for Parks & Rec of $1 mill, Increased Police Officers, Park Rangers and Restorative Policing at $1 mill, New Police Building debt service at $4 mill, downtown preservation at $1 mill and other critical infrastructure at $3 mill). The revenue options presented included a:
- Sales Tax: a 1/2 cent increase = $9 mill/year
- Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT): 6.25% increase = $10 mill/year
- Utility Users Tax: 7% increase = $10 mill/year
- General Obligation Bonds – one-time funding for capital projects
- Business License Tax
The threshold to pass each of them is as follows:
- Sales Tax – Majority Voter Approval
- Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) -2/3 Voter approval
- User Utility Tax – Majority Voter Approval
- General Obligation Bonds – 2/3 Voter approval
- Business License Tax – Majority Voter Approval
Here’s the fun part. The thresholds to place each of them on the ballot for the upcoming 2013 election. If placed on this year’s ballot, measure would have to be submitted by July.(And they had the discussion about voter turn out in city elections vs. even year elections)
- Sales Tax – Requires a supermajority of 5 votes of the council
- Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) -Majority Council Vote (4/7)
- User Utility Tax – Majority Council Vote (4/7)
- General Obligation Bonds – Majority Council Vote (4/7)
- Business License Tax – Majority Council Vote (4/7)
To place any tax on the ballot for Nov of 2014 would require a unanimous vote but it can be done at any meeting.
Using the 2008 User Utility Tax, Measure G as a reference which got on the ballot with a 7/0 vote after declaring a fiscal emergency – Mayor Schneider asked City Attorney Wiley if ‘declaring a fiscal emergency’ was part of the PROP 218 requirements to get a revenue enhancement stream on the ballot in 2014. Wiley responded, “Right it’s all even in the same sentence of Prop 218… declare an emergency …which hasn’t really been defined, so if a council says that it’s an emergency and takes a unanimous action you’ve satisfied that requirement.”
Scheneider then asked, “So if we were to put something on in 2014 and do that resolution this year we would have to declare some form of emergency in order to put it on for next year?”
Wiley’s answers, “That’s correct. Let me add… If this is your question, could someone go to court and say ‘oh it’s not really an emergency’? … No, they really couldn’t, that’s a legislative determination and generally judges aren’t given the authority to undo legislative determinations.
Shortly after this exchange, the staff presentation concluded and public comment began. Unfortunately, I only got to hear one speaker before I had to go. This speaker had something different to say which, independent of what I believe, it included thorough research on the matter and was a vastly distinct idea: outsourcing.