Despite a global pandemic, state- and county-mandated shut downs and resulting economic impacts, the city of Solvang sits in a healthy financial position with a cost-savings budget and long-term economic planning strategies put in place by previous councils, the city’s manager reported Monday.

The new council generally directed staff to stay the course with minor changes that will increase city services as COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.

“I think we ought to hold the line for now until we can see how we’re going to be doing,” said Councilman Jim Thomas as the group considered options for the city’s human service grant funding policies and procedures.

The previous council drastically cut the grant budget in 2019-20 — to $82,500 from $319,000 the previous year —  by prioritizing programs that benefitted the city’s seniors. They also excluded ongoing programs from the grant system, instead placing them on the budget as annual expenditures. Those included Elverhoj Museum, Solvang Danish Days Foundation for Danish Days, and Santa Ynez Valley Rotary Foundation for Fourth of July activities.

Councilman Mark Infanti noted the policy’s current lack of attention to children’s programs, and Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Orona requested COVID-related relief programs be considered, but the council unanimously agreed to stay the course for now.

“If we’re doing much better and the million bucks is back next year and we are back to normal, then you have that million dollars to put right back in appropriations without drawing on reserves,” City Manager Xenia Bradford said, referring to the loss of more than $1 million in transient occupancy tax revenues lost due to COVID-related shutdowns.

City staff was buoyed by Gov. Gavin Newsom's revocation Monday of the most recent statewide stay-at-home order.

“What that means for us and our businesses … is that we are now, as a county, back in the purple tier,” Bradford said.

That tier allows for the return of outdoor dining and travel for leisure, key changes for a city whose budget relies most heavily on tourism.

In March, the city collected essentially zero in transient occupancy tax as hotels operated at 6% occupancy. The most recent statewide closure resulted in a reduction to 20% to 30% of capacity with one hotel closing entirely, Bradford said.

Events still are not allowed, which Bradford said will continue to impact the city that uses special events to attract tourists and their dollars. Drive-in events are allowed, but she said the city doesn’t have any spaces large enough to make such event an economically viable.

Solvang Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tracy Beard said that, while businesses are opening under the purple-tier restrictions, the city should make long-term plans to help businesses and the community should future closures occur.

In other budget news, Bradford said the city has rejected a proposal by Santa Barbara County to increase by 37% Solvang’s contract for law enforcement services through the Sheriff’s Office. She said city managers from the four cities served by the county — Solvang, Buellton, Carpinteria and Goleta — have agreed none of the cities can absorb such an increase. Each continues to work with the county “on workable numbers.”

In other action, the council voted unanimously to provide a one-time, $10,000 grant to Bethania Lutheran Church expressly for the support of its ongoing food distribution program. The church has financed, and members and community at large have volunteered, to hand out groceries for up to 1,600 residents per week for the past 45 consecutive weeks. The Rev. Chris Brown said 97% of those receiving groceries and personal hygiene products through the program are from Santa Ynez Valley.

“These are the people that harvest our food, the people that work at the restaurants we are desperately trying to reopen,” Brown said.

The council also unanimously agreed to continue relaxing enforcement of its sign ordinance through the end of COVID-19 closures. That reduction in enforcement has allowed businesses to put up banners stating open status and current services offered as well as directional signage so long as businesses hold an encroachment permit and do not impede the public right of way.

The council also increased the public bathroom maintenance budget by $10,000 this year to provide for about 100 additional cleanings focused on the facilities high-use periods.

In other news, Solvang Public Works Director/City Engineer Matt van der Linden announced the ball is rolling on fully reconstructing Alisal Road from Santa Ynez River to the city limits. The project is in the design process, expected to go to bid before the end of the fiscal year with work beginning in July or August.

The council also held its first reading of an ordinance which would codify a new Design Review Committee, replacing the previous council’s Branding & Design Committee, which in turn replaced the previous Bureau of Architectural Review.

Under the proposed ordinance, each council member would appoint a member to the committee for a two-year term which aligns with the general election calendar. Membership would be limited to residents in ZIP codes 93463, 93464, 93441, 93460 or Solvang business owners, regardless of place of residence. The new policy also changes from requirement to recommendation that members offer expertise in local history or historic preservation, construction, real estate, geography, arts, landscape architecture or planning.

Series: Solvang City Council coverage

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