Solvang’s city budget has taken a considerable hit as a result of state- and county-mandated closures over the past year, and there’s no relief in sight as Santa Ynez Valley’s COVID-19 cases continue to increase and tourism promotion ebbs and flows.
“I would like to remind everyone we are not ‘business as usual.’ This is a pretty significant and quickly evolving situation,” said City Manager Xenia Bradford at Monday night’s Solvang City Council meeting.
Bradford reported the city dipped into its reserves to the tune of more than $1.1 million in 2020 to make up for transient occupancy tax and sales tax shortfalls attributed directly to COVID-19 shutdowns.
Santa Barbara County’s daily average of 444 new COVID-19 cases includes 43 from the Santa Ynez Valley, she said. The Valley has reported 579 total cases and 10 deaths since COVID-19 health reporting began last spring.
“Obviously, you see that this is a much more significant increase than anything we have been experiencing up to date. I think that you all are now, our mayor as well, firsthand experiencing the fact that now we are unfortunately all knowing someone nearby who has tested positive,” Bradford said.
Mayor Charlie Uhrig attended the meeting remotely via live internet feed and encouraged people in Solvang to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“The numbers are staggering right now,” he said.
Bradford said the rising numbers are also adversely impacting the city’s workforce, as staff members are forced into 14-day quarantine with each interaction with any person who tests positive for COVID-19.
Representatives of IDK Events, the city’s contracted marketing firm, said they have walked a fine line between supporting Solvang businesses and protecting its residents as state mandates change. They picked up tourism promotion as state mandates were downgraded during the summer months and began promoting Julefest in early November, but never actively sought press coverage “once things started shutting down again.”
Word of the city’s abbreviated Julefest activities spread, however, through media outlets across print, television, social media and other internet platforms.
Though the city canceled popular events like the Christmas Tree Burn, parades and other traditional entertainment blockbusters in 2020, Solvang still saw tourists flock to town to take in the holiday atmosphere, line up for take-out meals from area eateries, and leave behind growing piles of trash.
In response, the city set out additional waste receptacles and increased, from twice per day to four or five times per day, trash pickup throughout the tourist center, Bradford said.
The City Council also voted unanimously Monday to remove from City Council protocols a ban on nepotism in appointments of employees or officers. The protocol included “any person who is relative by blood or marriage within the third degree of the mayor or any one or more of the members of the council. ... Relatives to the third degree include parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents and first cousins. Further, it is the intent of this anti-nepotism provision that no family members or relatives to the third degree of the current mayor or members of the City Council shall be appointed to serve on any of the city's boards, commissions or committees.”
“I think I understand that it looks bad, but let’s think about the fact that we are a town of less of 6,000 people, so we can do our best to avoid conflict of interest, but we’re always, one of us is always going to be living too close to a project we’re supposed to be giving a consensus on,” said Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Orona. “I think in a town like this it’s pretty hard, and we have seen there’s not a lot of interest in civic engagement, so anything that prevents people from serving that can do a good job hurts us a lot more than if we were a big town where we had a bigger pool of people.”
She added council members and the community can voice concerns about any particular relationship during the appointment process.
The council also accepted the results of an independent audit which turned out a clean bill of health for the city’s budget and financial reporting process. Independent auditor Ahmed Badawi said his firm experienced no difficulties during the audit, found no significant risks of exposure, no material weakness in financial reporting and internal controls.
Ahmed noted the city did see a significant reduction in revenues which he attributed largely to COVID-19 impacts including reduced TOT and sales taxes. The report showed the city’s net cost of running all city departments rose from $5.8 million in 2018 to $8.5 million in 2020 while revenue dropped from nearly $7.4 million to $6.5 million.
In other action the Solvang City Council:
— Heard four proclamations recognizing the 110th anniversary of the purchase of 9,000 acres for establishment of a Danish colony named Solvang; the 100th anniversary of the Solvang Chamber of Commerce, originally called the Solvang Businessmen’s Association; January as Human Trafficking Awareness month; Jan. 9 as National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day and the third anniversary of the Montecito Debris Flow, in which 23 lives were lost to mudslides.
— Took a unanimous vote renewing Solvang’s contract with Visit the Santa Ynez Valley, a destination marketing organization primarily funded by hotel bed taxes collected in the Santa Ynez Valley Tourism Improvement District.
— Unanimously appointed to the Solvang Planning Commission for two-year terms: Aaron Petersen, Jack Williams, Joan Jamieson, Scott Gold and Justin Rodriguez.
— Gave unanimous direction to city staff to rename the Solvang Branding & Design Committee the Design Review Committee, codify its definition and responsibilities, continue to allow residents living anywhere in Santa Ynez Valley to serve, drop professional skill requirements, and to extend appointees’ terms from one to two years.