Does Montecito want greater self-governance?
By Melinda Burns
Bob Hazard, associate editor of the Montecito Journal and past president of the Birnam Wood Golf Club, has finally speared a big fish in his campaign for a community services district in the affluent community: County Supervisor Das Williams.
At Hazard’s urging, Williams has agreed to convene and chair a meeting with Montecito’s special districts to discuss the pros and cons of a possible merger. Hazard favors consolidating only water and wastewater services, but both men believe that a community services district also could raise funds for Montecito’s library and trails network, and the ring nets and debris basins on local creeks – depending on what residents are willing to pay for.
“I look at this from a larger good governance model,” Williams said, noting that unincorporated areas of the county such as Montecito have multiple special districts that serve many of the same customers.
“It’s harder for people to know who to come to if they have a problem for government to solve. There’s election battles that have been fought on these questions. It’s worth having a civil conversation about it.”
As Hazard sees it, a community services district could boost Williams’ campaign for reelection in November, 2020, too. The embattled supervisor has recently lost ground in the Carpinteria Valley, where his neighbors are up in arms over his embrace of the cannabis industry. A potential challenger, Laura Capps, a Santa Barbara school board member, is waiting in the wings.
Noting that Williams “may well face formidable election opposition” from Capps, Hazard put it this way in the June 27 – July 4 issue of the Journal: “In return for his support of the Montecito and Summerland communities, Supervisor Williams could reasonably expect greater recognition for positive achievements.”
On Tuesday, Williams sent out formal invitations to the Montecito Water District, which serves residents of both Montecito and Summerland; the Montecito Sanitary District and the Montecito Fire Protection District, inviting them to name a representative from their boards or staffs to participate in a discussion about forming a community services district. The meeting will be held later this summer.
Community services districts have the power to tax residents for a variety of services, from water and wastewater management to public recreation and undergrounding utilities. A plan must be presented to the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission for financial review, and if it is found to be sound, it goes on the ballot. A community services district cannot be formed without a two-thirds majority vote of the residents within its boundaries.
But the civility Williams hopes for in launching a discussion in Montecito may prove elusive. Last November, on the heels of triple calamity – severe drought, devastating wildfire and the deadly debris flow of Jan. 9, 2018 – a group of wealthy residents, including Hazard and other members of Birnam Wood, backed a slate of five candidates for the Montecito Water District and Sanitary District boards to the tune of $120,000, producing one of the most negative campaigns in Montecito history.
Taking aim at the Sanitary District, an award-winning agency that has been commended by the state for its “dedicated, professional and capable staff,” the slate won three seats and the majority on the water board; and two seats on the sanitary board, where it does not hold a majority. Williams endorsed three of the five slate candidates.
In campaign mailers, the slate mocked the Sanitary District’s plans to build a $5 million building as a replacement for its cramped and outdated headquarters on Monte Cristo Lane. The candidates said the money could be better used to help residents with septic systems hook up to the sewers.
Hazard did not respond to a request for an interview for this article. But in the Journal, referring to Montecito’s current leadership as “fragmented and uncoordinated,” he named himself to a potential task force for a community services district and listed a dozen other people whom he wanted to serve on it.
Hazard said “it would be unwise” for the new district to include Montecito Fire or the community’s two elementary schools “because they do a great job on their own.” But the Sanitary District, Hazard declared, is “dysfunctional” and makes “questionable decisions.”
Specifically, Hazard said, the $5 million slated for “a building of 5,085 square feet for four occupants” could be better used to inject recycled wastewater in the ground, install more ring nets, or create more debris basins. (The district has said that all of its 17 employees would use the building daily.)
“The creation of a single Water Resources District is an idea worth exploring,” Hazard said. “The intent is simplicity of decision-making, economics of resources and faster responsiveness to community needs with local strategic input.”
From the outset, Williams said, he is “not prejudging the way it should be in Montecito.”
“I think a community services district could be valuable for Montecito, even if there were no consolidations,” he said. “The one that makes the clearest sense to me is the glaring need for a partner to match funds with for the library.”
This fiscal year, largely with marijuana taxes, the county will backfill a $27,000 deficit at the Montecito Library on East Valley Road, Williams said. Next year, he said, the library deficit may reach $120,000. Williams said it would cost Montecitans just $10 per person, per year, to keep their library in the black. The Montecito Library is a branch of the Santa Barbara Public Library.
“Sustainable library funding is a real need in Montecito,” Williams said. “And there might be an interest in the community for ongoing strong flood and geological hazard abatement.”
But water and flood control projects are more expensive than library operations. The Montecito Water District is looking into building a $32 million plant that could recycle wastewater and inject it into the ground. Alternatively, the sanitary district wants to build a $5 million plant to recycle wastewater for its immediate neighbors – the Santa Barbara Cemetery, the Music Academy of the West and The Biltmore.
The Partnership for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit group, has spent about $4 million installing four nets on Montecito creeks and purchasing two more. The group is looking for $500,000 to finish the installation of the remaining two. It would cost several million dollars more to install an additional four nets on U.S. Forest Service land high above Montecito, for a total of 10 on local creeks, a spokesman for the Partnership said.
As for new debris basins, the cost of land acquisition alone for a proposed basin on San Ysidro Creek at Randall Road has been estimated at up to $25 million. The county has applied for federal funding but may not get it.
Montecito has a median household income of $146,000. Would residents embrace new taxes for a smorgasbord of new services?
Dana Newquist, who was elected to the sanitary district board in November with Hazard’s backing, said he would be willing to serve on a task force and was optimistic that “some very good things are going to come out of this.” But if a community services district comes to a vote, he said, he doesn’t know whether he would support it.
“I’m on a teeter-totter right now,” Newquist said. “You can’t just say it’s a good idea. I’d have to look at what the financial gains could be.”
At a recent water board meeting, Director Ken Coates, who was elected with Hazard’s support in November, called a community services district “a poor man’s cityhood.”
“Hazard’s premise in all this is helping Das get a win of some sort that will help him get reelected,” Coates said. “… If the intent is that money would somehow magically fall out of the sky, it’s not going to happen.”
Isla Vista vs. Montecito
In 2016, during his tenure as a state assemblyman, Williams led a successful campaign to found a community services district in Isla Vista, an unincorporated community of 23,000 next to UCSB. Two years later, I.V. voters approved a utility-user tax to fund such services as rental housing mediation and better street lighting.
But unlike Isla Vista, Montecito’s 9,000 residents have their own planning commission, homeowners’ association; board of architectural review; school districts; and fire, water and sanitary districts. A bid for Montecito cityhood failed on the ballot in 1991.
“We tried cityhood and that was a nonstarter,” said Abe Powell, co-founder of the Bucket Brigade, the nonprofit group that is still digging out homes in the wake of last year’s debris flow. “A community services district is another way of looking at it. It’s important that all these agencies sit down with each other.
“We’ve just seen how hard a community can get hit. The long drought put everybody on edge, and that’s a harbinger of things to come. What are the ways that we can work better together in the future?”
Other Montecito leaders are not convinced that a community services district is the answer.
“For the 25 years I’ve been here, the Montecito Sanitary District has been operating just fine,” said J’Amy Brown, a past chair of the Montecito planning commission and past president of the Montecito Association. “They’re financially solid, they’re managerially solid, and it’s one thing we don’t have to worry about. The only place where there’s been an upheaval in governance is at the Montecito Water District, so I’m not sure why we’re moving them into the top slot.”
Charles Newman, chairman of the Montecito Planning Commission, noted that few, if any, residents show up for government meetings as it is. “There’s a dearth of community participation in the deliberations,” he said.
“The premise of the advocates for creating a community services district is principally that the voice of Montecitans isn’t being heard,” Newman said. “It seems to me that in all fairness, before anyone can complain they’ve not been heard, they must first try to speak.”
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara