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Atascadero promises it won't use potential sales tax revenues to pay for cost overruns in Walmart/Annex Project road improvement

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The untimely intersection of two hot-button issues led to a not atypical late-night meeting at Atascadero City Hall.

On Oct. 14, the Atascadero City Council untangled how exactly the city would and wouldn’t use the funds potentially generated from a proposed sales tax measure placed before voters in November. Measure E-14, if approved, would create a half percent sales tax in the city, intended to produce revenues for repairing and maintaining roads.

Atascadero maintains 139 miles of roadways—the most of any city in the county—yet is the only city that doesn’t have such a tax currently in place. The tax would bring in an estimated $1.7 million, augmenting the $1.3 million currently spent on city road maintenance and generate funds needed to repair miles of dilapidated roads.

The tax has been met with some wariness, in part because the city chose a general use measure (which requires a simple majority of voters to approve it) rather than a specific use measure (which needs a two-thirds vote). While an advisory body would form to oversee spending, the general measure would still leave some wiggle room when it comes to using the funds. Nevertheless, the measure seemed to have general sentiments of support.

Then came a bump in the road. Just a few weeks ago, the city encountered a potentially major detour when the estimated road improvement costs for the already-approved Walmart/Annex Project jumped from $4.5 million to $12 million. The cost overrun has been difficult to swallow for city officials, especially because both the Walmart and the Annex properties have a cap on how much each would contribute for the major improvements required for the interchanges along Del Rio Road, El Camino Real, and Highway 101. The news is still settling in, and the city may have to front several million dollars for the project before grant funding comes through—if it does at all.

The situation has left critics of the city’s handling of the Walmart/Annex Project suspicious, pointing out what they consider to be an obvious option for city officials to use the sales tax revenues as a convenient bit of relief for part of the cost overruns.

“People are lacking in trust,” said Len Colamarino, sitting planning commissioner and current City Council candidate. “There is a crisis in confidence when it comes to handling money.”

The council eventually sorted things out, and included Colamarino and David Broadwater—who was also skeptical of the situation—in drafting new language to explicitly exclude the Del Rio Road interchange improvements from potential uses of the fund.

City Attorney Brian Pierik told the council that the language isn’t legally binding, however, and the council can only go as far as stating their intent. Regardless, that commitment was enough for Colamarino and Broadwater to rest their case, for now.

Before the meeting’s late-night adjournment, Broadwater, no stranger to the council, offered his gratitude.

“This was a lot more collaboration with you guys than I anticipated by far,” he said.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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