Despite potential budget deficits projected for the next five years, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors decided citizens won’t get a chance to say “yes” or “no” to increasing the sales tax rate to bring in more revenue.
But the board agreed conceptually to polling the public to determine support for increasing the flood control assessment to improve existing facilities and add new ones to handle potential future debris flows.
Supervisors couldn’t raise the four votes necessary to place a sales tax increase on the March or November 2020 ballot, which meant there was no need to spend money on a poll to assess public support for such an increase.
Both Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino and 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam said they would not support spending an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 to conduct a poll nor placing a sales tax measure on the ballot.
A progress report on the county’s Renew ’22 initiative that included a re-exploration of previously proposed but rejected ideas delivered by Jeff Frapwell, assistant county executive officer, noted the county’s current 7.75-percent sales tax rate is the same as four other local jurisdictions’ rates but lags behind those of four others.
Guadalupe has an 8-percent rate, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara both have 8.75-percent rates and Carpinteria has a 9-percent rate.
Currently, the county’s 1-percent local increment of that 7.75 percent brings in about $7.27 million of revenue annually, according to Frapwell’s report.
A quarter-cent added to that rate, raising it to 8 percent, would bring in an additional $1.82 million, he said.
Raising it to 8.25 percent would add $3.63 million, 8.5 percent would bring in another $5.45 million, and 8.75 percent would put an additional $7.27 million in county coffers.
Frapwell said the board could impose a sales tax in the unincorporated area for general purposes, which would require approval by only a simple majority of voters, or a special sales tax that would be dedicated to specific purposes, which would require a two-thirds vote of approval.
Either way, it would require four of the five supervisors to approve putting a measure on the ballot.
A special tax could be used to upgrade the public safety radio network, mental and public health facilities, libraries and infrastructure improvements like roads, parks facilities and trails, and supervisors seemed to focus primarily on deferred maintenance and infrastructure improvements.
Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart favored taking the public pulse on raising the sales tax.
“What this is is an opportunity to ask the public if they want to do this,” Hart said. “This isn’t voting on a tax increase; this isn’t imposing a tax increase; this is simply asking the voters themselves if they would like to pay more to address these issues.”
He said in cities where they’ve been asked, “voters have said ‘yes,’ simply, easily, and without close elections, in every part of the county.”
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First District Supervisor Das Williams agreed.
“Ultimately, the voter and the taxpayer has sovereignty in this case,” Williams said. “I just don’t understand why, if our goal is to figure out what they want, why we would stand in the way of voters wanting to tax themselves to pay for solutions.
“Let’s just see what happens, what comes back from the poll,” he said. “And it may be that they don’t (want to tax themselves).”
But Adam said he had a problem with what he said constituted a “moral hazard problem.”
“Historically, the problem has been that we keep telling people we’re going to fix the roads and give them more sheriffs and stuff, when in fact what we do is just give the employees another raise,” Adam said.
He noted that each time the employees are given a raise, it represents another $5.2 million, and “we’re not talking about that much” from a sales tax increase.
“Until I see some seriousness and some other way than this 18 percent (set aside for deferred maintenance) … I’m not going to support this,” he said. “We’re just enabling ourselves to kick a can down the road and not really solve the problem while we’re telling everybody we’re really solving the problem.”
However, Lavagnino essentially killed any hope of putting a sales tax increase on the ballot by becoming the second supervisor to withhold support because he’s been burned before on a tax measure.
He said he was “out in front” on the cannabis tax and twice supported an increase in the transient occupancy tax charged on all hotel and motel room stays, selling it to voters because the county needed the revenue.
“Once that went through — not this board, but ‘a’ board — decided, well, let’s just eliminate short-term rentals, which was almost roughly, it was almost exactly, the same amount of revenue that the new TOT generated … .”
Lavagnino added, “I’ve been out of my comfort zone. I’ve stuck my neck out. But … I haven’t seen that on the other side when it comes time for projects.”
He said the supervisors were elected “to make the tough decisions,” and if the board is going to ask voters about the sales tax, why not ask them “about projects we deny.”
Williams turned to another issue, that of an assessment on the South Coast to pay for flood control improvements like a new debris basin, cleaning out existing basins and providing a county yard.
He moved to hold off on a sales tax poll until such time as a compromise might be worked out and to give the County Executive Office conceptual direction to conduct a poll to see, geographically, where there is support for a flood control assessment.
The motion won unanimous approval.