Lompoc leaders presented a gloomy outlook regarding the city’s finances during an informal budget workshop Saturday morning that also featured creative suggestions — including some involving Hollywood movie studios and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk — for how the city can turn around its fiscal future.
The gathering, which was held in the City Council chambers at Lompoc City Hall, lasted a little more than three hours and was attended by Mayor Jenelle Osborne, Councilmen Jim Mosby, Victor Vega and Dirk Starbuck, and at least a few dozen community members.
City staff, including City Manager Jim Throop, started the discussion with a presentation that outlined some of the challenges facing the city as staff works to develop the next budget. Two of the main takeaways: If the city were to maintain the status quo and operate as it is now, it would face a deficit of about $462,000 in 2019, and that deficit would grow to about $3.9 million by 2021.
“It’s not easy,” Throop said of working to balance the city’s budget. “It’s not something that people want to start with. I’d rather start with a surplus and say, ‘Hey, I get to spend money somewhere else.’ So this one’s going to be tough. There’s three options really: You can reduce expenses, you can increase revenues, or you can do a combination of the two.”
Among the reasons for the projected deficits are the city’s rising liabilities to CalPERS, the state’s employee pension program, and several new costs that are expected to amount to about $1,125,000.
Among those new costs were $520,000 that the city has allocated for the cleanup up of the Santa Ynez Riverbed; $200,000 for the demolition of the old pool building in front of City Hall; $200,000 in increases for the city’s general liability insurance; and $130,000 for the Safe Parking Program that was most recently discussed at the Dec. 4 meeting of the Lompoc City Council.
Throop suggested that a possible solution for handling the old pool building demolition could be to make the facility available to a major Hollywood studio to use as it pleases, which could include having the studio destroy the building for a film scene.
“It’s something we can look at,” Throop said.
During the opening presentation, members of city staff noted that the city’s primary revenue generators for the general fund come from taxes, most notably property taxes.
Throop and the members of the council seemed to agree that increasing the city’s housing stock would have positive effects on not only that tax revenue stream but could also lead to more businesses choosing to operate in Lompoc, which would have even wider-reaching benefits.
Throop said the city is in discussions with the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to expand the city’s physical space. He also pointed to housing projects that are still in development — such as the 44-unit Summit View Homes project, which could bring an additional $50,000 in property tax revenue — as examples of positive factors that are on the horizon.
Throop said he was recently involved in a conversation with leaders at Vandenberg Air Force Base and they stressed how they would like to see launch-related facilities be able to open in Lompoc, which would allow rockets and other spacecraft to be built locally instead of having to be shipped in from other locales. Throop said the city doesn’t currently have the space for those types of operations.
“We need to get the ability to move out our borders, in different sections,” Throop said.
About a dozen community members offered public comment during the meeting, at which they could directly ask questions of the mayor, council members and city staffers.
A couple of the public speakers encouraged the council to reopen discussions about putting an increased sales tax on the ballot for voters. That idea was first proposed last year by former City Manager Patrick Wiemiller, whose recommendation to put three new taxes before voters in the 2018 midterm election was rejected by a majority of the council.
Lompoc resident Darrell Tullis suggested that the city leadership “think beyond Lompoc” and try to take advantage of the opportunities that could be available simply by virtue of the city being so closely tied to Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Tullis suggested that city leaders reach out directly to Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, among others, about opening operations for his companies in Lompoc. Musk, Tullis noted, is attempting to develop manned missions to Mars, a goal that is being featured in a popular TV series, and those missions could originate from the Lompoc Valley.
Further, Tullis said, NASA could also have more of a presence in town, given that the U.S. space agency was allocated $19.5 billion in last year’s federal budget.
“We’ve got a base that’s over there — Vandenberg Air Force Base — that has companies on it that are multibillion-dollar companies,” he said. “And we don’t tap into that resource. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.”
One topic that was brought up several times during the workshop centered on the fact that about 30 percent of Lompoc’s housing is designated low-income, which means the city doesn’t collect property taxes on those dwellings. Several people decried the fact that Lompoc’s percentage was much higher — six times higher, in some cases — than that of the other communities in Santa Barbara County.
Tullis suggested that trend could be reversed with increased educational opportunity in the city. He said that added education could lead to higher paying jobs at places like Tesla and NASA, hearkening back to his initial point about having those companies, among others, join the Lompoc business community.
Throop and Osborne both stressed that more community meetings will be held as the city moves further along in the development process for the upcoming budget. Throop said he scheduled Saturday's meeting primarily to give the post-election council, and the community at-large, a preliminary look at what's ahead.
Before concluding the meeting, Osborne thanked everyone for their participation and encouraged community members to stay involved in budget-related discussions.
“You showing up today really shows that you love this community and you want it to survive and you want it to improve, and that’s our goal as a whole,” Osborne said. “Maybe we each have a different approach to it and we have a different desire as to how we should see that implemented, but our goal is to work as a whole and improve our community and do it in a way that lifts everyone up.”