Timely. Relevant. Significant. And familiar. These are just some of the terms that could apply when describing the vital issues confronting Santa Barbara in 2023, priorities the City Council discussed on Friday.
They include creating more housing, helping Santa Barbara’s unhoused population, improving conditions on State Street now and in the future, and financial stability, and accomplishing this and more with limited numbers of staff.
“The meeting was a great opportunity for the council members to really roll up their sleeves and work together to find some common ground and determine what near-term issues they want to tackle,” City Administrator Rebecca Bjork said.
“For me, this was an opportunity to set goals and prioritize strategies to address the many issues facing our city,” Councilmember Eric Friedman said.
The council did not vote on anything or make any actual decisions at the special council meeting.
“Friday was a work session, not an action item meeting,” Mayor Randy Rowse told the News-Press. “Ideas were shared and each council member got to list their priorities for discussion. The list will be distilled from a brainstorming session down to some cogent and attainable goals.
“I can say that the status of State Street, homelessness, housing and financial stability were consensus points,” he said. “But once again … it was a time to share with each other, the city administrator and the city attorney, our thoughts, goals and what (we) feel are community priorities.”
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon said there seemed to be a clear consensus to prioritize housing, homelessness, State Street, public safety including youth safety, financial stability and staff retention, and economic vitality.
“The council and the mayor seemed in agreement on what the priorities should be, with future public agenda items on how to achieve these priorities in measurable ways,” she told the News-Press.
“We all had a lot of ideas, but this meeting wasn’t for deciding the policies of how to get there, but for agreeing on what to focus limited staff resources on while we continue to deliver services and perform the many city functions already in place.”
During the morning session, City Attorney Sarah Knecht provided Brown Act training and updates, along with overviews of new legislation on council meeting decorum and campaign contributions.
The council also reviewed their Rules and Procedures, including remote meeting updates and agenda management. Revisions will be brought to a future council meeting for consideration and formal adoption.
In the afternoon, the council focused on areas of priority for fiscal year 2023. Discussion focused on five areas of particular interest for the year: fiscal sustainability, State Street, homelessness, housing and youth safety.
Mayor Rowse said the meeting was a chance for the council to develop an understanding of what is needed to reach their goals for the city.
“The meeting offered an opportunity to share issues important to us, but also to discuss the actions needed to get there,” he said.
The council established three initial items for staff to address in the coming year. The first is to develop downtown building and maintenance standards to ensure storefront upkeep, the second is to identify barriers to adaptive reuse for housing in the downtown corridor and ways to promote housing projects, and the third is to work with the school district on youth safety programs.
“For myself, it is important to emphasize that we will still be moving forward on policies affecting the sustainability and resilience of the city,” Councilmember Sneddon said.
She said her individual priorities are:
– Moving housing forward at La Cumbre Plaza and ideally at the Macy’s and or Nordstrom buildings.
– Functional Zero Homelessness: a bed for everyone in the city with more funding and support from regional partners.
– State Street: plans for the short-term, mid-term, and long range that would be clean, accessible and safe. She also said she wants to prioritize filling store vacancies and streamlining adaptive reuse options for housing.
– Financial stability focused on paying city staff competitive wages in order to recruit and retain excellent staff. She said many programs currently are understaffed and not serving the city as well as they could be.
– Continued focus on Resilience and Sustainability: Councilwoman Sneddon said she doesn’t want to lose focus on fire safety, water budgeting and impacts of sea level rise and a changing climate.
Councilmember Friedman agreed with his colleague that financial stability is key to achieving the council’s goals and keeping the city running while looking to the future.
“Fiscal sustainability is a top priority for me since all services the city provides are predicated upon revenues and expenditures balancing,” he told the News-Press.
“With the potential for a recession this year, along with a projected structural deficit in the coming years, it is critical to have a plan in place in order to continue to provide the services the public expects while also considering how to improve employee recruitment and retention, which is difficult due to the high cost of housing and other factors.
“The Fiscal Sustainability Initiative currently underway is an innovative and proactive approach for long-term solutions.
“In addition, this year in particular, the future of State Street, Paseo Nuevo and LaCumbre Plaza will each present opportunities to shape the future of Santa Barbara for years to come,” he said. “Each of these are complex with unique challenges that will need careful analysis and thoughtful planning along with input from the public.
“While focusing on these projects, it is essential that the city continue to invest in infrastructure, public safety, policies to create affordable housing, addressing homelessness, creating opportunities and partnerships with other agencies to invest in our youth and teens, and investment in parks and libraries.”