In her State Of The County address on Sept. 30, Santa Barbara County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato said the message is clear: County government wants to focus on improving the health and economic wellbeing of people who suffered the most during the pandemic.
The in-person luncheon, hosted by the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce, featured several county leaders who discussed a wide range of topics impacting Santa Barbara County, including the pandemic and their plans for the future.
Miyasato said there will be more local public investment “than we have in decades” on pressing issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
While the county needs ongoing revenue, she said, much of it will be one-time in nature, so officials will need to focus on the most impactful interventions and investments.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in June adopted a $1.35 billion budget for fiscal year 2021-22, which began July 1, with a “very positive fiscal outlook,” Miyasato said.
“Our board has been good at prioritizing, planning, and sometimes cutting back when we need to, despite nonstop emergencies and disasters,” she said.
Since Miyasato took over as the county’s top executive eight years ago, she has proclaimed 17 local disasters and emergencies and the county’s emergency operation centers have been activated more than 40 times.
“This year, we’ve been able to fully fund our strategic reserve, and a contingency fund for unseen emergencies, which is important for the county,” Miyasato said.
Despite the pandemic, Santa Barbara County’s property taxes and sales tax revenues have remained stable, with modest growth.
“You’ve probably seen the increase in property values in the south county in the last year,” Miyasato told the crowd seated outside at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.
Santa Barbara County is also seeing continued growth in cannabis tax revenue, “which continues to exceed our estimate,” she said.
The county has collected nearly $16 million in cannabis tax revenue for the year, which funds enforcement of cannabis regulations, permitting costs for the industry and compliance programs, along with other community needs including libraries, alternative energy projects, enhanced election operations, and housing and homelessness programs.
In the upcoming year, Miyasato said, the county plans to continue focusing on its public health response, including COVID-19 vaccinations, health equity improvements and recovery efforts.
The county is also in the planning stages of a few major capital projects, she said, including replacement of the public safety radio system, developing a new probation building headquarters and upgrading the infrastructure at Lake Cachuma Recreation Area in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Assistant CEO Nancy Anderson also spoke, and focused on the county’s partnerships with businesses and the local workforce throughout the pandemic, as well as the county’s participation with a regional collaborative focused on economic development.
“We at the county have learned a great deal from all of you,” she told attendees. “From manufacturing to performing arts — all demonstrating the economic diversity of our community.”
Peter Rupert, a professor of economics at UC Santa Barbara and the director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, said the unemployment rate is still elevated in Santa Barbara County.
Pre-pandemic, the unemployment rate was about 3.8%. The latest data shows the unemployment rate at 5.5%.
“It’s better, but that’s a long way to go still,” Rupert said.
There are about 12,000 unemployed people in Santa Barbara County, Rupert said, while before the pandemic struck in March 2020, there were about 6,000 unemployed people.