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Public safety, marijuana, roads rise to top in county budget

See what got funded—and what didn't—in this year's county budget

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The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors survived a contentious week of budget hearings on June 14, and adopted a final 2017-18 budget on June 20.

Of course, the hearings weren't without the political scheming, rancorous dialogue, and spiteful accusations that have become commonplace at the Board of Supervisors.

SLO County faces several new challenges ahead, including legalized marijuana, the eventual loss of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, a housing crisis, unprecedented California groundwater laws, and an unpredictable federal administration.

In addition to tackling those frontiers, supervisors fought to advance their individual causes, ultimately adopting a $590 million budget.

North County gets more deputies

On the campaign trail in 2016, 1st District Supervisor John Peschong emphasized a need to enhance public safety in North County for communities like Templeton, San Miguel, and Shandon due to spikes in gang activity in the region.

True to his word, Peschong raised the issue during the hearings, calling for more sheriff's deputies to cut down response times to the far-flung communities across North County.

"Response times are 45 minutes to an hour [from Lake Nacimiento to Shandon]. That's on a good day," Peschong said at the hearings.

Peschong convinced the board to fund two deputies for North County, at $340,000, using contingency funds. Sheriff Ian Parkinson did not list the deputies as a top priority for the upcoming fiscal year, but he did request them without success for 2016-17.

Even with allocated funding, the Sheriff's Office has struggled to fill new deputy positions. Last June, the board approved two new deputies for the North Coast region. A year later, those positions are just now getting filled. Parkinson said the delays are because of unexpected retirements in the department.

"This seemed to be the year to retire," Parkinson said. "We're trying to get up to speed. We've been filling positions as quick as possible."

Getting serious about marijuana

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SLO County is not taking the legalization of marijuana lightly. The board approved seven new positions that will be responsible for regulating cannabis cultivation as well as enforcing the county's permanent marijuana ordinance, which will get adopted in the fall.

The additions: the Agricultural Commissioner is getting new inspectors and biologists to "meet anticipated workload generated by regulation of cannabis." The Planning Department will add two resource protection specialists charged with inspecting cannabis grows four times per year. The Sheriff's Office will add two more deputies to be part of what's being called the "cannabis compliance team."

Even the County Counsel's Office is beefing up to take on cannabis: Two positions were added to, among other things, file civil enforcement actions against violators of the cannabis ordinance. The county is already dishing out suits, most recently against five growers allegedly cultivating pot illegally in the California Valley. What exactly will the county allow and not allow for the cannabis industry? Your guess is as good as our. The draft ordinance is changing constantly, with the latest iteration reviewed by the board on June 20. 

Roads, roads, roads

In February, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold succeeded in swaying her colleagues to add "road maintenance" as a top-four budget priority. As such, next year the county's pavement management program will have $11.6 million to spend, which is $3.5 million higher than a typical budget year, and more pavement money than "most comparable counties," the budget report read.

The road funds don't stop there. SLO is set to receive an additional $8.9 million from the state for transportation projects due to the passage of Senate Bill 1, the controversial gas tax increase backed by the Democratic Legislature.

South County gets park money—but little for skate park

Supervisor Lynn Compton had the floor during the Parks and Recreation budget hearing, as well as full control of the county's $1.2 million in Public Facilities Fees (PFFs)—a fund born by developers that Compton doggedly argues has been inappropriately spent outside her 4th District for years.

"We're sorely lacking in South County for anything for our kids, [and] we've suffered the brunt of the growth," Compton said.

In March, Compton got $150,000 allocated to jumpstart plans for a long-desired skate park in Nipomo. But constructing the skate park didn't make her list of top priorities in the budget. Compton opted to send the PFFs to fund a new water line at Dana Adobe; construction of the Jack Ready Imagination Park; and tennis, pickle ball, and basketball courts, as well as equestrian trails, at the Nipomo Community Park. The vote passed 3-2.

"This catches us up [in South County]," Compton said.

Supervisors Bruce Gibson (2nd District) and Adam Hill (3rd District) dissented in the vote; both board members dispute Compton's claim that the county has misallocated PFF funds.

"This is pure pork headed to Nipomo to bolster Supervisor Compton's re-election bid," Gibson said. "This is unbelievably outrageous."

Hill and Gibson's housing idea bucked

In a June 8 opinion piece in The Tribune, Supervisors Hill and Gibson put forward a budget proposal to allocate $5 million to help build affordable housing in the county.

The gist of it was to partner directly with nonprofits like People's Self-Help Housing or Habitat for Humanity—groups that could use the funds to complete housing projects that are already identified and in the works.

How to find the $5 million? Hill and Gibson requested moving some money from the road maintenance funds, the $1.25 million allocated to groundwater plans tied to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and $1 million designated for consultant work to analyze affordable housing issues.

The proposal didn't win over Peschong, Arnold, and Compton, who voted it down 3-2, though Peschong called it an "interesting" idea that needed "more vetting."

People's Self-Help Housing CEO John Fowler also found the proposal interesting.

"There are projects in the pipeline that we have, and that other nonprofits have, where if there was money available projects could be done sooner rather than later," Fowler told New Times. "I spoke to the board and said, 'Yes, it could be successful.'"

While unsuccessful this year, Fowler hopes the board will revisit the concept of dedicating county funds toward affordable housing projects.

"We got one proposal rejected. I'm not going to say it was the right proposal," Fowler said. "But I hope it started a different discussion and [the board doesn't] sort of let the issue die. We can't. Housing is a crisis." Δ

Contact Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.


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