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Initiative could put voters in charge of fees

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A secretive group is inching closer to gathering enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the November general election that, if approved, would force city officials to put every change to city fees to a popular vote.

Backed by the San Luis Obispo Property Owners Association, the User and Regulatory Fees Initiative has about 2,000 signatures in support, according to Association Treasurer Stephen Barasch. The initiative would require a majority vote on any new, expanded, or increased fee proposed by the city, according to the initiative summary. Everything from parking fines to building permits fees to golf-course fees would be subject if the initiative passes. It would also cap fees according to “per capita family income levels”.

“This would kind of force the city to live within its means,” Barasch said.

The group needs approximately 4,100 signatures (15 percent of the city’s registered voters) by May 14 to qualify for the November ballot.

The initiative would drastically affect how the city handles fees. Currently, the city approves new and increased fees by vote from the City Council after public hearings. A popular vote for every new or increased fee would require city officials to lump such requests together during general elections or to hold special elections. “It would obviously put the city in a pretty difficult position in terms of recovering its costs,” City Attorney Christine Dietrick said.

According to Barasch, and the language of the initiative, the city has overspent itself into a deficit for the past five years and is expected to dig the financial hole deeper for another five. Rather than reduce spending, Barasch said, city officials have instead relied on taxpayers to foot the additional tab.

“They continue to spend more than they take in every year and now it’s come back to bite ‘em.”

The signature-gathering campaign has been relatively underground so far, and intentionally so, Barasch told New Times. “We’ve just kept it very low key,” he said. “We don’t want to get people upset. People are very suspicious of petitions.”

The Association has sent signature gatherers door to door and enlisted help from a few downtown bars. Barasch said the goal is to collect close to 3,000 signatures by May 3.

The group sent its proposed language to a Sacramento law firm for independent review and believes it is defensible. Barasch claimed the initiative would be the first of its kind in any California charter city (cities that govern based on a local charter document).

If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, the city will issue an official legal position on it after independent analysis, Dietrick said. If the city considers it illegal, there could be a court challenge before the election, she added.

But for now, Barasch seemed sure the initiative would qualify and SLO residents are ready to send a message. “I think it shows that people are very concerned about the financial viability of the city.”

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