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09.10.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

We crunch the numbers on the failed Measure T, listen in to the Santa Cruz City Council Candidates' Forum on transportation and wonder what the hell has gotten into those drill-happy Santa Barbarans.

Postmortem: Measure T

The $2.5 million per year Measure T would have raised for emergency services averages about $3.76 per month for each of Santa Cruz's 55,364 residents. That's about the cost of a mocha at Lulu's, five hours of parking on Beach Street or hot dogs, sodas and a tip for two at Costco.

But that extra change proved too much to bear for Santa Cruz voters when Measure T failed by less than 2 percent of the votes cast. The Aug. 26 mail-in ballot would have raised phone line taxes from $1.81 to $3.49 to pay for 911 services and other police expenses. And since Santa Cruzans carry a long history as a tax-friendly voting bloc, Measure T's failure has many residents and lawmakers blaming poor timing and a lack of campaign effort for its demise.

"I think there was an assumption that the same people who had supported past measures would automatically support Measure T," says Councilmember Ed Porter. "People who had put in long nights supporting other campaigns got tired and there was a miscalculation of the effort that was needed to get it passed. The supporters are out there--they just didn't vote."

Measure T lost by fewer than 200 votes, but other tax hikes that total much more than $3.76 per month have passed by landslides in the last few years. Just three months ago Measure R, a quarter-cent library improvement sales tax hike from the '90s, was made permanent by a resounding 73 percent yes vote. As a countywide tax, Measure R brought in $6.7 million last year, according to Santa Cruz Finance Director Sandra Benoit. That's an extra $2.23 per month for each of the county's roughly 250,000 residents.

In February, three education-related measures, including a $24-per-year increase on existing $81 parcel taxes for properties within Santa Cruz Elementary School District and an $18 million bond sale for the San Lorenzo Valley School District, were passed overwhelmingly by voters who turned out in numbers twice as high as Measure T's 9,689 ballot casters. And although Measure O, the San Lorenzo school bond measure, is impossible to track financially until bond sales are finalized, Measure P, the elementary school parcel tax, came in on top of a parcel tax that generated $1,675,800 last year. That translates to a colossal $8.75 per month for the roughly 16,000 properties that fall into the district's taxable area.

And not only school measures have passed with flying colors. In 2006, Measure H hiked up citywide sales taxes by one-quarter percent for use in the city's general fund. The $2.4 million generated by Measure H adds up to about $3.61 per month for Santa Cruz residents and is only a hair lower than the demands of Measure T.

Add that to the $2.23 from June's Measure R, $8.75 for February's Measure P and $3.61 for 2006's Measure H, and you've got $14.59 in extra taxes Santa Cruz residents have agreed to fork over since 2006.

The 911 call center Measure T was aimed at supporting is still a vital service for Santa Cruz County, and the $1.3 million the city is expected to shell out every year for its operation will still need to be paid. That money will now have to come from other areas, and Mayor Ryan Coonerty is pointing at the city's parks and recreation department as the likely financial scapegoat.

"Eighty percent of our general fund goes to police, fire and parks and recreation," says Coonerty. "State law mandates we keep certain levels of police and firemen. So parks and recreation usually takes the brunt of cuts. In retrospect. I wish we would have waited for the November ballot and asked for a slightly lower increase."

Among voters, a lack of information was commonly cited. In an informal survey by Nu_z, nearly a dozen residents claimed to have no knowledge of the measure. Caren Dix, a community activist, said she heard about Measure T on the last day votes were accepted and couldn't vote. Evan Kaufman, a farmers market vendor, said he would have voted enthusiastically for the initiative if he had been told about it.

"I think a couple of bucks on my phone bill would have been a lot better than taking it out of education or parks," says Kaufman.

"The money's got to come from somewhere."

Santa Barbarians

Whatever they're putting in the water down there in Santa Barbara, it probably isn't petroleum-soaked pelicans--yet.

Nearly 40 years after the massive Central Coast spill that catapulted the anti-oil movement into the national spotlight, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Aug. 26 to send a letter to the governor requesting that the ban on offshore drilling be lifted.

It could be an act of pure pandering, with no possibility of becoming real. Santa Barbara Congresswoman Lois Capps dismisses the board's action as "a political stunt," which she doesn't think will have "much effect." And Gov. SchwarzEnegger has signaled no change in his stance on continuing the ban.

But Save Our Shores Executive Director Laura Kasa expresses concern that the symbolic impact of the board's letter will be fuel for Republican offshore drilling proponents in Washington.

"Any of these Republicans will say, 'Hey, the whole county who once so opposed offshore drilling now says it's OK--this is the way the whole country wants to go,'" Kasa says.

Government statistics from the Energy Information Agency estimate that it would take 10 years to obtain oil from new offshore drilling, and 20 years for prices to fall. Kasa cites the EIA's estimate that the financial offset in the price of petroleum 20 years down the line would only be a few cents per gallon, and says that SOS is working to educate the public on the actual impact opening up the ocean for drilling could have.

Even stranger waves are being made in the Southern California ocean. Anti-oil groups Get Oil Out! and the Environmental Defense Center have made a deal to support oil company Plains Exploration & Production's bid to expand drilling off one of its platforms. In exchange, the oil company has agreed to shut down its operations in Santa Barbara County within the next 14 years.

Capps supports the arrangement between the environmental groups and the oil company.

"I believe this agreement is a good compromise," she says in an email message. "It will result in the termination of drilling from four existing platforms and the closure of two onshore processing sites in the county by 2022. Without this agreement, those platforms and production facilities could be there indefinitely."

Realistic compromise aside, Nu_z still feels a little queasy about environmental groups and oil companies getting cozy.

Cautious in her assessment of fellow conservation organizations breaking bread with Big Oil, Kasa says, "It would make me look more closely at an organization like that and why they operated that way."

Candidates Talk Transpo

Of the nine Santa Cruz City Council hopefuls who made the trip to the Sept. 3 Candidate Night Transportation Forum at Louden Nelson Community Center, four walked, three biked, one carpooled and one drove.

A good ratio even for a sustainable transportation debate.

But it wasn't, in all honesty, much of a debate. Since each of the six moderators was allowed to present his or her views before asking any questions--and since candidates were allowed all of a minute and a half to respond--the answers that were expected were clear as day. And when, at one point, the whole audience began belting out, They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, along with the rest of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," it would have taken a candidate with a death wish to say, "C'mon, we need a five-story parking garage there."

The two-hour question-and-answer session gave the 75 or so audience members a look at some of the contenders for the four soon-to-be-open seats on the council. And with hot button issues like the Cathcart/Cedar parking garage, Highway 1 widening and the Rail Trail on the agenda, there was no shortage of weight behind each candidate's answer.

"The bottom line is we need a sustainable transportation network," said candidate and transportation commission member David Terrazas. "The Rail Trail, more sidewalks, easier public transportation, eco-pass bus tickets... They are all part of what needs to be a functional network."

Mayor Ryan Coonerty was articulate and calculated in his responses and championed the Rail Trail as "the single most important element of our transportation plan and a legacy to leave future generations."

Retired academic librarian and former Mayor Katherine Beiers also held up the Rail Trail as a keystone for countywide transportation and charged city staff with seeking out grants to fund its construction, as opposed to axing existing programs to pay for it.

Coming in from the left, wellness coach and healer Blas Cabrera and medical marijuana activist J. Craig Canada offered the same suspicion of misinformation and additional police presence but differed widely on getting their point across.

"When we have a debate about building a parking garage and getting rid of the farmers market it has to include the issue of public health," said Cabrera. "By removing a huge supply of organic food from the community, you are taking away one of their rights to a healthy lifestyle."

Canada admitted through his own yawns that he had yet to figure out what Personal Rapid Transit was when the issue was brought up, but he did warn against changing rules of the road to better suit public transportation without first considering the consequences.

"If you turn Beach Street into a convertible lane, you're going to need a fleet of tow trucks when rush hour hits," he said.

Another ages-past former mayor, Don Lane, asked for bus passes, Zip cars, carpool incentives and bike lane upgrades and called upon "local volunteers" to make the projects possible.

Others, like community volunteer Simba Kenyatta, doubted any alternative transportation programs could be funded, calling the city "dead broke."

"In the end it all comes down to money," said Kenyatta. "I'm all for these programs, but sometimes lofty goals run into trouble when it comes time to fund them."

UCSC writing lecturer and former Councilmember Tim Fitzmaurice, after very directly imploring the audience to vote for him, called improving bike passage on King Street a "life or death issue," a reference to the two bicyclists killed on Mission Street in the last year.

And Councilmember Tony Madrigal took a hard stance against Highway 1 widening by pointing to the adverse health effects on roadside communities.

"You see cancer pockets and trouble breathing in these communities (near highways)," he said. "Where do the rich people live? They live by the beach where the air is clean."

After the debate, attendees were both impressed and frustrated by the proceedings, with several audience members calling the structure of the forum "fixed" and "forced."

"I thought the questions were ridiculous and far too general," says longtime Santa Cruz journalist Bruce Bratton. "All the candidates knew what answer was expected. I didn't learn anything."

Others came away eager to learn more about some of the new faces, like Susan Martinez and husband Fred Geiger, who were glad to have the candidates on the record and planned to hold them accountable later.

"I think we were both impressed by Blas Cabrera," Geiger said. "I've been involved with local politics for years and had never heard of him. He seemed intelligent and definitely worth looking into. Look, I'm just glad transportation is getting to the forefront along with housing."

Raise A Pint

The memorial service for Chris Matthews--labor activist, political firebrand and co-owner of the Poet & Patriot Pub--will be Saturday, Sept. 13 at 3pm (arrive 2:30pm) at the Shakespeare Festival Glen at UCSC. A wake at the Poet & Patriot, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, will follow.


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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