Separation Plan Is Revived in Santa Barbara County

Times Staff Writer

Undaunted by political defeats dating back a quarter century, leaders of a movement to split the rural northern half of Santa Barbara County from the urbane south have launched a new petition drive to place the issue on a countywide ballot.

Notice was given to county officials this week that a group of northern separatists known as the Citizens for County Organization wants to collect about 20,000 signatures necessary for a feasibility study of whether such a division could work.

Santa Barbara County officials and economic experts have said repeatedly in recent years that such a split would cost the northern portions of the county heavily in lost tax dollars. Currently 68% of the taxes collected by the county come from the south, only 32% from the north.

But money has never been the major issue, many leaders say. To put it simply, a lot of people in working-class, conservative northern cities such as Santa Maria, Lompoc and Solvang believe residents in Santa Barbara and other wealthy, liberal southern bastions look down their noses at them.

A petition drive to split the county roughly at the Gaviota Pass was underway just a few months ago, but it was overshadowed by a recall election against Supervisor Gail Marshall. Her 3rd District seat encompasses both the conservative regions around Solvang and Buellton as well as the liberal enclave of UC Santa Barbara.

Marshall has been the swing vote on a Board of Supervisors that often splits 3 to 2 on issues that northerners believe favor southern interests. The goal was to push her out and replace her with a conservative -- former county Sheriff Jim Thomas.

But the recall failed in November. And the drive to split the county came to a halt, with only about 5,000 signatures of the 24,000 needed. Jim Diani, a leader of the drive, announced two months ago that his organization would regroup.

"Now that other issues have been resolved there is renewed enthusiasm for the creation of the new county," he said in a news release Tuesday. He favors the name Mission County.

In an interview, Diani said it will take fewer signatures this time around because the number of registered voters has declined. Petitioners need a quarter of registered voters in the proposed new county area, he said.

"We won't have a problem getting enough signatures," he said. "After that, the county clerk certifies the petitions, and it goes to the governor to appoint a five-member committee to study whether or not a county split could work. If we really push, we would be lucky to get it on the November 2004 ballot."

There are simply too many differences between north and south in Santa Barbara County and politics has become increasingly divisive, Diani said. Another supporter of splitting the county is former Supervisor Harrell Fletcher, who represented the Santa Maria area for eight years beginning in 1975. It was Fletcher who led the first ballot effort to split the county, succeeding in putting the issue before the voters only to lose with 22% of the vote.

Fletcher says the southern politicians have hurt agriculture and housing construction by overly restrictive regulations, and have driven the oil business out of the north county. Oil once accounted for about a third of Santa Maria's economy, he said.

"Our philosophy is totally different," he said. "Look at the people in Montecito and the people up here. Those people don't believe we know anything.

"Another big issue is geography," he said. "We are 75 miles away from Santa Barbara. It takes me an hour and a half to get there. Thousands of people have to spend that much time driving there every day. It's simply too far. We are too cut off from government because of that."

While economic experts have projected serious financial problems for the north if it splits from Santa Barbara County, Fletcher believes costs could be kept down in a smaller county. To avoid long drives, county workers might even settle for smaller salaries, he said.

County officials in Santa Barbara take a less emotional approach to the issue, partly because they believe the south would actually benefit from a split more than the north even though they aren't particularly interested in pushing for one.

Robert Geis, county auditor-controller, did a study two years ago that indicated north county would start off with about a $12.6-million deficit if it split off, while the south county would be left with a $17-million surplus.

Geis and other county leaders say the southern portion of the county receives 64% of the property taxes generated in the entire county, 79% of the retail sales tax funds and 95% of hotel bed taxes.

"Revenue generation in the south is much higher than the north," he said. "But at the same time a lot of the money collected in the south helps pay for services in the north."

What puzzles some economic experts is the impulse for quick action by northern secessionist leaders. If they just wait a few years, they say, the population will tilt so much toward the north that it will gain control of the Board of Supervisors. The county has about 400,000 residents, split equally between north and south.

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