Santa Barbara Gives Property Owners Clear Picture of What Their Tax Dollars Buy

Every mayor knows that while the concerns of taxpayers in cities are expressed in a wide variety of ways, they generally boil down to the same basic questions: How much tax am I paying, what am I getting for it, and is my tax money being spent wisely? In Santa Barbara, Mayor Harriet Miller is giving her property owners the information they need to answer those questions for themselves.

Santa Barbara is like most cities in its desire to keep the public informed and to continually improve the effectiveness of its communication. There are public meetings, publications and now an Internet Web Page, and in years past, the City has published reports on its budget to help citizens understand how revenues are used. This year, however, the Mayor wanted to do more to achieve greater public understanding and acceptance of the City budget; she wanted to reach every property owner in Santa Barbara with clear and concise information on their individual role in that budget -- i.e., the portion of each property tax dollar that is received by the City, and what the City does with that money. Mayor Miller and other officials felt that most taxpayers did not realize that:

  • The City was receiving only about 14 cents of each property tax dollar paid and that the remainder was going to the County, to school districts, and to the special districts and agencies identified on the tax bills for each individual parcel; or that

  • Property tax revenues provide only about 12 percent of the costs of the City services supported by the General Fund, with the balance of the costs being covered by other revenue sources such as sales taxes, hotel bed taxes, grants, and utility user taxes, fees and service charges.

Using colorful pie charts, Santa Barbara officials designed a mailing that showed the relationship between property taxes and other revenue sources, and the breakdown of expenditures for public services provided to residents and businesses. This mailing was personalized for each property owner, showing the taxable assessed value of their parcel, the approximate total annual property tax, and the contribution of taxes on that parcel to the overall General Fund budget.

The mailing went out in June, and Mayor Miller reports that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "Most property owners are surprised to learn the small amount that their property tax provides toward the cost of a broad range of City services," she says. "The mailing has given them a clearer picture of the importance of other revenue sources in balancing the City's budget."

Based on the calls that have come into City offices since the mailing, taxpayers are happy to have the information they have been sent. Officials say a number of the calls they are receiving concern the property tax assessment and billing process, and those are being referred to the appropriate staff in the County Assessor/Tax Collector's office.

Additional information on Santa Barbara's taxpayer information initiative is available from Marcelo Lopez in the City Administrator's Office, (805) 564-5305.

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