It’s encouraging to report that unemployment rates are falling in all three counties in our region.
Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, at 7.4 and 7.8 percent, respectively, are third and seventh lowest in California; Ventura County at 8.6 percent is still above the national average but is the 10th lowest in the Golden State. Better still, thanks to Community Memorial Hospital and other projects, construction job growth has returned to Ventura County.
But now comes news that is not encouraging. Santa Barbara County’s continued “structural” budget deficit of $17 million for the coming fiscal year. While Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties have largely solved their budget issues, Santa Barbara County remains far behind the curve.
The austerity programs the Board of Supervisors is weighing to solve the problem may help in the short run, but we’d argue that Santa Barbara County’s irresponsible fiscal policies are the biggest impediment to growth across the region.
We’d argue for a different kind of approach, one that reduces regulation and opens up more opportunity for development in North Santa Barbara County. And we’d argue that now’s the time for the board to choke on some words it doesn’t like to pronounce and put up the money to launch an economic development strategy.
Here’s the problem:
• The current budget’s proposed cuts will reduce the level of services to the poor, veterans and others, but that will only export those problems to neighboring counties. Ditto cuts to health care and mental health.
• Although Santa Barbara County is basking in good fortune when it comes to jobs, many of them are in the South Coast, and a number are in low-wage industries such as food and lodging. Though improving, unemployment in Santa Maria, Lompoc and Guadalupe is stuck in the double-digits, far above the rest of the region. More cutbacks are only going to hurt those areas disproportionately.
• Structural reform to public sector pensions is a can that just keeps getting kicked down the road. Santa Barbara County’s high-cost pensions, which soak up 6 or 7 cents on the dollar in taxes, are the real cause of the deficit — so far, no fixes are in sight.
• To really right the ship, the county needs to throw the long ball. Bringing back the Tranquillon ridge offshore oil development, getting the stuck Miramar Resort off the drawing boards or bringing a big new development into Santa Maria or Lompoc are the sort of projects that could permanently put Santa Barbara County back on track.
• Whether it is a mega-Monterey shale play, a new resort or a long-term plan for growing revenue from the wine industry, North Santa Barbara County needs an economic driver that can rival the power and potential of UC Santa Barbara. Already the Santa Maria Chamber’s Economic Development Agency effort has made a good start. But a broader economic development strategy for the county could be a logical next step.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Santa Barbara County should take its fiscal crisis as a sign that it must take some of the curbs off of economic opportunity and let private business flourish. That’s the only way to get rising property taxes, rising sales taxes and a balanced budget.