The five candidates for mayor of Santa Barbara met at a forum downtown last night in advance of a citywide election Nov. 3.
The potential mayors spoke to a crowd of more than 50 people, discussing problems with the city’s general fund, building height limits and medical marijuana. Candidates Stephen Cushman, Dale Francisco, Isaac Garrett, Bob Hansen and Helene Schneider will vie to replace Mayor Marty Blum in this fall’s election.

With the city’s general fund facing a projected gap of $3 million next year, the budget was discussed at length by all the candidates. And while they all agreed that city finances were in dire straits, they disagreed on how to solve the issue.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you can’t spend more money than you bring in and not have a problem,” Cushman, whose resume includes being the current president of the Santa Barbara Regional Chamber of Commerce, said. “We spent down our reserves. … Now we have a critical problem, the worst recession we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and the reserves are gone.”

Helene Schneider, a city councilmember, defended her role in the current city government and said the city is already taking steps to address the budget issue.

“Close to 80 percent of our general fund is salaries or benefits,” Schneider said. “Through good faith bargaining [we could] figure out how we can reduce some of those expenses.”

Nevertheless, Dale Francisco — the only Republican currently on the city council — stressed his disappointment in some of the council’s previous decisions.

“[The city council] can’t say no to the unions when negotiation time comes around,” Francisco said. “This spring we gave a raise and a new paid holiday to city employees. … I voted against that. That’s where the cuts are going to have to come.”

The candidates also discussed Measure B, an initiative on the November ballot that would lower the height limit for construction projects in the city from 60 to 40 feet.

Cushman and fellow candidate Isaac Garrett both voiced opposition to the measure.

“I don’t like the idea that if we had a major disaster in town and some of our landmarks fell down that we couldn’t rebuild them the way they are,” Cushman said.

Francisco disagreed, saying a limit of 40 feet would maintain Santa Barbara’s intimate environment.

“I think Measure B will be good for Santa Barbara,” Francisco said. “What we have done in Santa Barbara over the years is manage to preserve a beautiful town.”

In addition to financial and zoning issues, the candidates also fielded questions written in advance by the audience, including a question concerning medical marijuana laws.

Isaac Garrett, a real estate broker, agreed that dispensaries should be legal. However, he said they should be regulated.

“I support the dispensaries, but I also believe that they’re too close in some cases to some facilities such as schools,” Garrett said. “I would like to see them further away.”

Bob Hansen, an advocate for the homeless, echoed Garrett’s support for legal marijuana sales, saying such practices could provide a significant source of revenue.

“I think we need to grow up and see it’s legal right now,” Hansen said. “You can go and buy medical marijuana. Can you imagine the money generated for Santa Barbara and the state?”