There’s a good chance that the hot debate over the city of San Luis Obispo’s Measure G will leave sour grapes and “I told you so’s” somewhere.
Voters registered in the city are set to decide on Measure G, which will uphold a half-percent sales tax already in place as the result of Measure Y, which passed in 2006 and will eclipse in March of 2015. The debate on how Measure Y has been handled, and what exactly Measure G will involve, is at times so specific that people won’t even agree on whether Measure G is a new tax or the restoration of an existing tax.
The measure has been a hot issue ever since it was first heard when the council was considering placing it on the November ballot. Critics unhappy with how the city used Measure Y funds have pointed to “broken promises” and a willy-nilly use of taxpayer money, saying the city took monies that officials originally said were to be used for capital projects, and used them instead on salaries and pensions. Measure Y was passed as a general services tax, however, which allows for the funds to be spent on a wide variety of uses.
So far, as of fiscal year 2012-2013, Measure Y has generated a total of $36.2 million with $31 million spent. Some funds are encumbered or assigned to future expenditures as part of the program, leaving roughly $4.4 million available for future year appropriations. The city has spent approximately $13 million of the funds on operational costs (including staff, training, materials, and support), and approximately $15.9 million on capital improvement projects.
Keith Gurnee, a former SLO city councilmember leading the No on Measure G charge, points to how Measure Y funds were spent on open space preservation—which, during the campaign, was touted as one of the big recipients of would-be revenue, but as of now sits in last place on the list of expenditures.
Gurnee said the city has used measure Y funds a little too freely, including for the hiring of staff and increasing salaries. But as city officials point out, the funds were intended in part to increase certain services, which ultimately means hiring people to carry out those services.
Clint Pearce, president of Madonna Enterprises and chair of the Citizens for Measure G campaign, argues that these expenditures are a necessity in achieving the goals set forth by Measure Y. He points to public safety, one of the key pillars of Measure Y.
“You enhance safety through the use of ... more police officers and more firemen,” he said.
Critics have also pointed to the city’s capital improvement spending from before and during Measure Y, saying that spending didn’t increase once Measure Y funds were injected into the city’s budget. But that period included the recession, and a decline in general revenue seen across the board. In that case, the added Measure Y funds became a lifeline—not to be taken for granted, Pearce said.
“The city did their best, I believe, to spend those dollars on the things people expected,” he said. “When an economic event like the great recession comes along, you have tough decisions to make because your revenues fall.”
For Gurnee, it comes down to a feeling that what was said then and what is being said now aren’t in tune.
“This is an issue of public trust,” he said. “If the city would just be honest with us about their financial position and not play hide the ball, they might get a better response from voters.”
For Pearce, however, the city did what it could with a set of funds that from the beginning had some flexibility built in.
“I don’t understand the logic in not moving forward with that financial mechanism,” Pearce said. “This is how cities fund themselves in the world that we live in. The cost is so minimal to residents that it’s barely felt.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay