Héctor Sánchez Castañeda
Isla Vista Beat Reporter
Isla Vista stakeholders met on December 4, 2014 for their first weekly meeting to discuss how they would traverse the road to self-governance. It wasn’t until April 12, 2016 — nearly 500 days later — that they celebrated their victories and won the right to start lobbying voters to pass the formation of a community services district (CSD) alongside an eight percent utility-user tax (UUT).
The meetings were largely led by Darcel Elliott, district director for the office of Assemblymember Das Williams. Elliott said she structured the meetings based on a model used by the United Farm Workers union — the house meeting model. This grassroots-imbued tactic led to steady participation from at least a dozen or so community members week after week.
The plans formed during the two-hour Tuesday night meetings over 16 months culminated in a six-to-one vote of approval from the county Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) earlier this month, when stakeholders presented the version of the CSD to appear on November’s ballot. Commissioners furthermore agreed to give the CSD eight powers outlined in Williams’s Assembly Bill 3 should voters pass the measure this fall.
In another vote of seven to one, the commission voted to place the eight percent UUT on the ballot as well. The UUT may only be levied on electricity, garbage disposal, gas, sewage and water.
Commissioner Jeff Moorhouse was the sole nay vote. His vote was largely ceremonious, since LAFCO is bound by the terms of AB 3 to put some combination of the CSD and UUT initiatives on the ballot — or otherwise face fines.
“If we voted no, do we go to jail?” Moorhouse said, laughing. “Why are we voting?”
The meeting began with a recommendation by LAFCO Executive Office Paul Hood to place both the CSD and eight percent UUT on the ballot. If voters approve both measures by a two-thirds majority, the district would start business on March 1, 2017.
The ballot will also include candidates to fill five seats on a district board of supervisors. Upon passage of the CSD measure, two additional board members will be appointed, one by the county supervisors and the other by the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr — who represents I.V. — asked why, if the vote is in November, the district cannot be operational by January. Hood said the added time would be used to hire administration and sort out other legal details.
“A little breathing room isn’t bad,” Hood said. “We usually do that with forming new districts … so they’re not just handed the keys to the car, they need to learn how to drive for a period of time and then they feel more comfortable with the responsibilities that special districts have.”
Farr then asked how hiring would happen if the CSD had no money to operate, since the UUT would not have been implemented yet. Hood had no clear answer to this, but suggested district operators would be dependent on donations and private contributions.
Questions from Commissioner Roger Aceves were geared more toward a provision of AB 3 that stipulates the exclusion of low-income people from taxation. Aceves’s concern was that since the majority of students could be considered low-income, the tax may not generate as much as revenue as anticipated.
The first public speaker on the matter was prominent CSD advocate Jay Freeman, also a candidate for the third district supervisor seat. Known for his use of technology and fast-paced rhetoric during presentations, this time Freeman joked he’d be going “off script.”
“Please look at the eight percent tax, and then if the voters don’t want it they just won’t go for it,” he said. “I think it’s a glorious plan of service.”
Associated Students Letters and Science Collegiate Senator Ashcon Minoiefar and External Vice President for Local Affairs Paola Dela Cruz spoke on behalf of University of California, Santa Barbara students in support of the CSD, specifically its jurisdiction over community policing and facilities.
Dela Cruz emphasized the past role UCSB students have had in creating community centers, such as recent initiatives to develop the Pardall Center and the I.V. Community Center.
“The Pardall Center often operates at full capacity and cannot meet the community need for a larger venue,” Dela Cruz said.
UCSB alumnus Cameron Schunk, who co-authored the final plan of service, said the financial burden that I.V. places on the county would be lightened by the CSD.
“This district will act as a foundation on which Isla Vistans can cultivate community stewardship, engage in creative problem solving and approach situations from a hyper-local perspective,” Schunk said.
At the administrative level, UCSB expressed its support in monetary terms. Kirsten Zimmer Deshler, director of governmental relations for the university, affirmed to the commissioners that the school would back the CSD through annual payments of $200,000 over the next seven years — for a total of $1.4 million.
But that money can only be used for university-approved projects, a condition Moorhouse criticized. He urged Deshler to cede control over the funds’ use in recompense for the tax-exempt status of university-owned property.
“What we have a history of doing is working in partnership with the county and others in I.V., and we don’t ever write a blank check,” Deshler said. “We work in cooperation, and make sure that public funds [are] being used [for] things that advance the safety and quality of life of the community, and for the benefit of our students.”
Just one public speaker spoke hesitantly about the CSD. Charles Eckert, chair of the Isla Vista Property Owners’ Association, recommended the commissioners put all initiatives on the ballot, but called passing them a “bad idea.”
“It is a terrible and inefficient misuse of resources to raise one dollar to spend on programs by taxing people two dollars,” Eckert said. “I urge you to go ahead and do what you must do under the statute, which is forward this for voting given the maximum tax that they ask for … and then say ‘this is a terrible idea.’”
Deliberations were short, though Moorhouse managed to slip in a few more objections before the matter was put to a vote. One targeted the AB 3 clause that prevented LAFCO from rejecting the ballot initiatives.
“I believe that this becomes the poster child of why the state of California and the state legislature needs to stay away from formation of local governments,” Moorhouse said.
He also saw the appointment of two CSD board members as potentially unconstitutional and worried that the UCSB-appointed member would wield too much fiscal power, especially with regard to the university’s own contribution — money he referred to as “wet cement.”
Five days after the LAFCO vote, stakeholders met for their final meeting at the I.V. clinic building to celebrate. On the back wall, a large banner made on Freeman’s home printer depicted Schunk as a pirate and took the place of the white poster paper used to jot down ideas at past meetings. They had decided to celebrate Schunk’s birthday one day early.
“I want to thank you all,” Schunk said. “There was no adversarial nature. There was no trashing of the bill and the district. Every single one of those commissioners remarked on how proud they were of this community … I was blown away.”