Opinion » Street Talk

Money, money, money, money

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"What are the most important things for the City to accomplish over the next two years?"

I'm not asking you that. The City Council is asking you that. If I were asking you that, I wouldn't use quotation marks, because I don't need to quote myself in my own column. I'd just come right out and say it. But since the city's asking, via a blue, tri-fold pamphlet with Director of Finance and Information Technology Bill Statler's name on it, the city gets the marks.

"The Council wants your help in answering this question."

See? There they are again.

Turns out that next June, our elected leaders will approve the next two-year budget for the city, covering everything from 2007 to 2009. I have a hard time figuring out what I'm going to eat for dinner tonight and wear tomorrow, let alone what the whole city should spend Measure Y funds on, but if you're a forward-thinking sort of go-getter, this challenge might be right up your alley.

The first step is to help the City Council come up with goals for the city, like "run two miles every day" or "finally get that online degree." Feel free to just go nuts, because, the pamphlet tells us, the city is "facing its most favorable fiscal outlook in many years." Think we deserve two rocket cars in every garage and an elephant in every pot? Put it on paper and send it in.

The folks with the books attribute the current rosy financial situation to the aforementioned Measure Y, a sales tax adopted earlier this month by 65 percent of the voters, who apparently don't mind dropping an extra half a penny when they shop in the city in exchange for getting some potholes filled in, protection from flooding, and assorted other services. Thanks, John and Joan Q. Moneybags. You really stuck it to literal penny pinchers such as myself. Now I won't be able to afford that critical operation I've needed unless I find a coin or two on the cracked and pitted sidewalk.

The city is also enjoying something called a long-term "structural budget balance," and everybody hopes it means drastic cuts are but a passing shadow and that new initiatives can be given life while services are restored. The city's also apparently sitting on some strong reserves.

In light of all the good news, I'm surprised I haven't seen councilpeople walking around polishing their monocles, carrying big sacks with dollar signs on them, and lighting up cigars with $10 bills. Maybe they will someday, if we all tell them that that's how we want our money to be spent. I can think of a few roads that need repairs, but the whole monocle thing might be worth it. It would certainly show Santa Barbara who's got more culture.

Despite the happy picture, however, city staff want to remind us all that resources are still limited, so it looks like we can't throw an infinite amount of funds at a giant laser that can be fired at neighboring cities to show them who's really boss.

That's where we come in, though. The City Council is actually asking us to speak up about what our highest priorities should be over the next two years.

Got any ideas? I've got a few, despite the fact that I implied earlier that I have a hard time seeing past two minutes from now. Oh, hold on. My egg is done. I forgot that I left it on the stove.

Off the top of my head, I'd say that the city could stand to look into homeless services and, oh, I don't know, a detox center or something like that. Feel free to steal that idea and use it as your own, by the way. If enough people say it, something might actually happen to revolutionize what's looking like a chronic problem in this town.

I know of a few bikers (of the cyclist variety, not the leather-wearing chopper type) who can name a trail or two that could use a little TLC from the city coffers.

On a more specific local angle, the council could throw some of that "structural budget balance" to downtown businesses under the financial gun because of potential structural imbalances in the architecture.

Maybe the city could subsidize McCarthy's rent? That would certainly be a public benefit. Or, come to think of it, what about giving the EOC Thrift Store a hand so it doesn't have to wander like a nomadic tribe without a home in the desert?

There's plenty of stuff the city could spend its wad on, and we've got until the New Year to figure out what that is. The council is throwing a community forum on Jan. 10 and is calling for written suggestions by Jan. 2.

Our leaders tell us that they'll review the comments they get in preparation for a goal-setting workshop set for Jan. 27, which will, in turn, guide the Preliminary Financial Plan to be issued in May. Plan, plan, plan!

Don't delay or dawdle, though. You may work well under pressure, but I don't want to have to drive over potholes because you couldn't get your act together in time to point them out to the people with the sales tax revenue burning a hole in their pockets.

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