A group of North County residents called The Responsible Taxpayers Against the County Split (R-TAX) hopes to keep Santa Barbara County from splitting in two in 2005.

The Citizens for County Organization (CFCO) backs the 2004 ballot initiative that would split the county. The group was formed in1999 to split northern Santa Barbara County – including Santa Ynez Valley, Lompoc, San Antonio Valley, Santa Maria, Guadalupe, Betteravia and the Vandenberg Air Force Base -from the South County and renaming it Mission County.

For the measure to appear on the ballot, the CFCO must gather signatures from 25 percent of the North County registered voters in support of the split – approximately 28,000 signatures from both North and South Counties. If they gather the necessary signatures over six months, California Gov. Gray Davis will appoint a five-member formation commission to study the feasibility of the proposed Mission County. If the commission finds that the proposed county is financially practical, then it will appear on the ballot, where it must pass by a majority vote of both the existing county and the proposed county.

To Split or Not To Split

This is not the first attempt at dividing the county. In 1978, county supervisor Harrell Fletcher led an unsuccessful campaign to split the county, motivated by the under-representation of North County in the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. At that time, the South County held a 3-2 majority in the board. The North County population has increased dramatically since then, but it has not gained greater representation in local politics.

Fletcher, who is also a member of the CFCO, said the 1978 vote failed because group organization centered too heavily in Santa Maria. He said the current CFCO has more broad-based support, including all the North County mayors.

CFCO Chair Jim Diani said the group proposed the county split as a solution to increasing population and cultural differences.

“The county is separated by a geographic barrier that divides the urban South and the rural North. When you come right down to it, [in] land use particularly, we are ideologically different,” he said. “How they impose environmental legislation is different. In the north there is a general feeling of over-legislation and bureaucracy by South County legislators.”

R-TAX spokesperson Joyce Howerton said the proposed county is economically wasteful.

“It’s such a stupid idea-at a time when money is becoming more and more scarce – that a group would propose to split the county and duplicate the government is a waste of taxpayer money, time and energy,” Howerton said. “We need to throw away the blood sport that our county politics have become. I believe the best thing the county has is diversity. This diversity has the potential to bring so much to the table, to enable us to reach more innovative resolutions.”

Third District Supervisor Gail Marshall is considered by split proponents to be more sympathetic with South County interests. According to Marshall’s advisor Mark Chaconas, the county split is motivated by developer and business interests.

“In the 3rd District both Bill Wallace, the former supervisor, and Gail have been progressive environmentalists and they are the swing vote,” Chaconas said. “This whole thing is driven by agribusiness and construction, which is what Diani’s company does, and their desire to develop North County. These are the same people behind the recall that fought us on redistricting, and opposed Gail’s election. This is not about any of the issues they are purporting but it’s about controlling the growth and development policy.”

Mission County: Sink or Swim?

The CFCO recently commissioned a study by the Berkeley-based consultant Economic and Planning Systems, Inc. to determine the financial feasibility of the proposed county. The study concluded that despite an estimated $12 million deficit, the proposed county would be practical if its expenditures were lowered.

“What we are really trying to do is start from scratch and create a government that is closer to the people and can better represent them,” Fletcher said.

Chaconas said the North County consumes a greater proportion of Santa Barbara County services while contributing less to county revenue. He said it would be difficult for the proposed county to provide the necessary public services.

“A majority of probation, crimes committed and public health services occur in North County. These costs far outweigh the revenue generated, and you are required to provide these services by law,” he said.

Fletcher said that while county governments are required to provide services like welfare, the state and federal government fund these projects.

“Most of those services don’t come from the county funds,” he said. “The county provides the services but the funds come from state and federal government. It’s not going to affect the county.”