SLO city voters kicked off some controversy in 2006 when they passed a half-cent sales tax to pay for “essential services” under Measure Y. These days, with the effort’s net gain essentially wiped out by increased city salaries—including police pay raises —the issue remains a point of contention.
Case in point: Former SLO Mayor Peg Pinard is questioning how “downtown improvements” ended up on city mailers as a “Measure Y ballot priority,” even though it wasn’t listed on the ballot or in past budget goals.
Pinard was an outspoken opponent of Measure Y when it was on the ballot—she even wrote the rebuttal argument against the measure that appeared in the 2006 voter guide. Now she says the spirit of the measure isn’t being honored.
Some call it semantics. Pinard calls it manipulating the system.
In a letter to city officials and media outlets,
Pinard wrote: “City residents voted for the Measure Y ballot priorities. One sector’s agenda for taxpayer funding of new downtown trashcans and news racks should not be confused with the community’s Measure Y priorities at the time they voted to tax themselves.”
City staffers are quick to point out that San Luis Obispo’s method of balancing its budget is widely praised by other cities. It’s an exhaustive process that includes several opportunities for public participation, including mail-in surveys and two townhall-type meetings, where the council listens to advisory bodies and citizens, and then rates their needs.
Those needs are then classified as major city goals, important objectives, or lesser projects, the latter of which may receive funding as resources permit. During this process, “downtown improvements” was presented as a major city goal and Measure Y priority, even though it wasn’t on the ballot.
City Finance Director Bill Statler said keeping Measure Y priorities static while the community changes would be folly.
“At the end of the day, Measure Y is a general purpose measure,” he explained. “The language was very clear, and it was very wise not to restrict the way funds were used.”
Statler said that because several Measure Y goals applied to the downtown area—such as street paving and traffic congestion relief—they were all rolled under the “downtown improvements” heading.
Critics say that such a move misses the point: While the city and council members have a right to add budget priorities—and they did, by including homeless services and affordable housing to the list of major city goals—“downtown improvements” squeaked onto a list of Measure Y priorities and thus appeared to be the result of community input from 2006. It wasn’t.
One of the downtown area’s most outspoken cheerleaders has been Mayor Dave Romero, who has publicly endorsed improvements to the downtown’s aesthetic profile. In an interview, he cited messy sidewalks, broken traffic signs, mismatched trashcans, and newspaper racks as examples of needed improvements. Nothing was critically important, but it was aesthetically “sloppy.”
“Of course,” Romero conceded, “the vision I have [for downtown SLO] is somewhat like Main Street Disneyland.”
In the end, various components under the “downtown improvements” umbrella spread out a bit more. The infrastructure maintenance aspects—including streets, sidewalks, and creek flood protection (all Measure Y priorities)—became major city goals. Downtown beautification moved to “other important goals.”