Those who believe this is as good as it gets in the Santa Barbara area are all wet.
Our extraordinarily wet winter and pending activation of the Santa Barbara desalination plant promise some much-needed drought relief this spring. This will, in turn, reduce one of the key barriers to economic growth in our Santa Barbara communities. But there are still dark clouds looming over our local economic parade. From the departure of CKE Restaurants, to the vacant store fronts on State Street, to the spike in unemployment in December, to the ongoing explosion in public employee pension costs, and the nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance costs sitting on the books of our County and municipal governments, there is ample evidence that this is not “as good as it gets” in our local economy.
With the launch of the County’s Economic Vitality Team and the upcoming budget cycles at our County and municipal governments, it is time to take a hard look at the economic wellness of our community and identify steps we can take to improve our economic health and vitality. Fortunately, a local nonprofit, Reason in Government, has done just that.
In a Report entitled “Grading Santa Barbara County’s Economic Wellness,” Reason in Government developed a model for assessing a county’s economic wellness across ten measures based on Census, County and municipal budget, state and federal labor, and other publicly-available data. This Report revealed that Santa Barbara County’s economy is not well, receiving an overall grade of “D+”. Notwithstanding a handful of positive trends (such as a substantial increase in median income), the County’s unemployment rate is high by historical standards and comparison to other jurisdictions, its poverty rate is high by any standard, its public finances are weakening at all levels of government, its 21st Century jobs are in short-supply, and its lack of housing (as many others have also noted) impedes economic growth.
Undoubtedly, some will want to shoot the messenger, and others will quibble with the model and the selected data. However, the economic facts are undeniable (rather than “alternative”) and the Report’s conclusion is inescapable, as this brief comparison of Santa Barbara County’s unemployment and poverty rates to other California counties and national averages demonstrates:
|Geographic Area||Unemployment Rate
|Poverty Rate (2015)|
|San Luis Obispo County||3.9%||14.8%|
|Santa Barbara County||5.2%||16.3%|
The question facing our community, therefore, is what are we going to do to improve our economic wellness? The Report contains several recommendations for actions that our elected officials, business community, investors, and philanthropists should take in the near-term to improve our economic wellness, including:
- The Board of Supervisors and local city councils must take all actions necessary to stem the increasing drain on public resources caused by skyrocketing pension contributions (and retiree healthcare costs).
- The EVT, SBCAG, and other similar regionally-oriented organizations must bring together the private and public sectors across the County to implement public-private partnerships and innovative programs that encourage and accelerate: (1) appropriate new development, as this is critical to increasing public revenues and creating needed jobs; and (2) redevelopment and infill development projects that increase the supply of housing units, as we must increase housing supply in a manner that is consistent with the evolving character of our communities.
- The business and philanthropic communities must redouble their efforts to stimulate business formation and growth through all available mechanisms, including venture funding, micro- and other commercial lending/community banking, and grants.
- Philanthropists should also prioritize efforts to alleviate poverty in our communities as a core part of our civic commitment to social justice.
As the Report explains, the economic fates of our local communities are intertwined. It is, therefore, critical that efforts to improve our economic wellness be regional in scope and carefully coordinated pursuant to an overarching strategy. Otherwise, we risk “running to stand still.”
But run we must. In fact, we should be sprinting to catch-up with the rest of the country as well as coastal counties in California. To get us out of the starting blocks, local residents should write their elected officials and encourage them to take steps to curb pension costs and invest in the future of our County and its communities. Similarly, residents should write the EVT and their local Chambers of Commerce and encourage them to “think big” and act quickly to spur job and housing growth in our communities. Working together, we can demonstrate how good things can actually get across Santa Barbara County.