- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- ‘PROBLEM AREA’: Off-road activity at the popular Oceano Dunes poses environmental, public health, and wildfire problems, but brings in perhaps as much as $171 million to the local economies.
Nobody likes tourists, but small California cities need them.
Proposition 13—passed in 1978—severely limited what cities can collect in property taxes and forced governments to turn more to regressive revenue sources. Detractors spurn sales and hotel bed taxes for treating the rich and poor equally, but the monies do provide a suitable property tax replacement for a town that succeeds in marketing itself to tourists.
More than any other city in San Luis Obispo County, tourism feeds Pismo Beach.
“It’s really our only revenue source,” Mayor Shelly Higginbotham said. “How would Pismo be poised to have any other industry given where we are located?”
An estimated two million people visit Pismo Beach every year, depositing approximately $250 million into the city’s economy. That activity translates to roughly $13.8 million in sales tax receipts with the city keeping about $2.65 million. Pismo’s hotel bed tax makes up 41 percent of the city’s revenue and can generate more than $1 million during a single summer month.
On one hand, the corresponding cost is obvious. Visitors outnumber permanent Pismo residents by as much as four to one on any given summer day. During some events, such as the Classic Car Show, Pismo Beach becomes the fifth largest San Joaquin Valley city with a temporary population of more than 100,000. SLO County residents may make up a small fraction of the seasonal population, but, let’s be honest, most know better than to spend time in Pismo when the tourists descend.
What’s significantly less clear is the amount of money it costs to set the table for more than two million visitors. Let’s examine.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- ATASCADERO IN FIVE BLOCKS: On any particular summer day, Pismo Beach may have a temporary population between 18,000 and 35,000.
The Pismo Beach Police Department recently added a seasonal bicycle patrol position to its regular force of 23 sworn officers. Police Chief Jeff Norton explained the department opted for a second bike cop because it’s hard to drive downtown during tourist season.
“We’re a lot busier in the summer,” Norton said, “and most of our calls come from a five-block area.”
Pismo PD also appears busier than law enforcement agencies in the rest of the county. The calls the department receives fall into two categories: “part-one crimes” such as homicide, rape, and the various levels of theft; and “other offenses,” which include petty crimes like possession of marijuana and defrauding an innkeeper. Pismo sees plenty of both, but part-one crimes provide a better basis for comparison.
Pismo Beach PD investigated 417 part-one crimes in 2012, 422 in 2011, 455 in 2010, and 497 in 2009. By contrast, Atascadero Police responded to roughly half as many similarly classified crimes over the same period. More than 28,000 people call Atascadero home—3 1/2 times Pismo’s population.
It should come as little surprise that Pismo PD’s $5.4 million operations budget comprises the city’s single largest expenditure during the 2013 fiscal year.
“We retain a higher number of police officers, per capita, than anyone else in the county,” Higginbotham said.
When newsworthy crimes occur in Pismo Beach, they often involve visitors. The most prominent example resulted in the May conviction of five Fresno, Nipomo, and Santa Maria residents for the brutal 2010 murder of 15-year-old Dystiny Myers. In another high-profile case, a court convicted former Tehachapi city councilman Daniel Shane Reed in 2012 for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy in a Pismo Beach hotel.
The statistics, meanwhile, point indirectly to tourism. Local crime figures suffer from a lack of specificity when it comes to the non-racial demographics of the offender. Even though the anecdotal evidence suggests visitors contribute more to the police blotter than locals, the numbers just don’t provide a useful breakdown.
Except for drunk driving. City police made 92 DUI arrests in 2012. That’s an impressively low figure compared to years like 2007, when the department made 182. Pismo consistently rivals much larger SLO County cities in DUI arrests, and tourists appear to be to blame for the anomaly.
In 2012, the Tribune looked through the reports of 586 individuals arrested under suspicion of drunk driving over a 32-month period. According to the resulting article, 14 percent hailed from the Central Valley. Pismo Beach residents accounted for only 16 percent of the people arrested under suspicion of driving under the influence in Pismo Beach.
2. Sea rescue
The U.S. Coast Guard knows exactly how much it costs to operate the equipment at its Morro Bay station because movie producers sometimes commission its use for shots.
The Coast Guard charges $6,000 per hour to operate the MH65 Dolphin helicopter. Each small rescue boat costs $40 to $70 per hour to operate on top of the $50 to $100 per hour the agency pays for each member of the (minimum) four-man crew.
The Coast Guard’s 47-foot rescue boat burns $1,200 per hour.
Coast Guard Public Affairs Specialist Adam Eggers explained Uncle Sam—and not local governments—picks up the tab for actual search and rescue operations on the sea. The Coast Guard never charges the rescued party regardless of how much they contributed to their own peril.
“These costs are not something we go for reimbursement on, unless it’s a hoax call and it’s proven to be a hoax call,” Eggers said.
Even on the occasions when the rescue victim dies, the Coast Guard needs to recover the body. In fact, authorities only tend to release the identity of an ocean victim when that person dies. Tourists and college students appear in these reports with disproportionate frequency due to their relative unfamiliarity with local ocean conditions.
Cal Poly student Stefan Wagner, 21, of Fresno, disappeared beneath the waves while swimming in Spooner’s Cove on June 21. His body turned up in the surf several days later. Christopher Castro, 53, of Bakersfield died that same weekend when breaking waves capsized his boat after he and a fellow mariner pulled too close to the Morro Bay south jetty.
Eggers explained that many nonfatal rescues simply involve someone unfamiliar with underwater coastal features getting taken by a rip current or sucked out through a channel.
“Most of the time with tourist stuff you’re talking about beachgoers,” he said.
3. Traffic safety
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MORE CARS, MORE DRUNKS: SLO County’s two CHP stations made 28 DUI arrests during Fourth of July weekend. Out-of-area drivers accounted for 11.
More cars create the need for more frequent road maintenance. Just two years into a six-year repaving project, Pismo Beach has already spent $3 million with more than two-thirds of the city to go. The money comes from a half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008 and set to expire in 2014. Voters will need to reauthorize the tax for the city to complete the project.
Traffic accidents also cost quite a bit of money. Fatal accidents, in particular, create the need for detailed investigations to determine accident cause and fault. The costs borne by the victim’s family also affect economic growth. According to the National Safety Council, each traffic death in 2011 cost the U.S. economy more than $1.4 million.
That’s not to say tourists get in more serious accidents than locals, only that visitor traffic significantly increases the emergency response burden of Pismo PD and other local agencies.
“Just on the 4th alone we had three DUI crashes—two of them injury crashes,” local CHP Officer Richard Lee said.
When it comes to accidents, Pismo sees more than its fair share of action. Census records show 7,669 people reside in town, which means Pismo should see one fatal accident approximately every 23 months if California averages held true. Yet, between 1975 and 2009, 45 people died in 40 fatal accidents in the city—an average of 1.29 deaths per year in 1.14 crashes.
Pismo Beach has already seen two fatal accidents this year. One occurred June 27 when Joshua Hurt, 21, of Bakersfield flipped an Acura Integra near the Spyglass Drive ramp of Highway 101, killing his 21-year-old passenger. Hurt now faces charges of vehicular manslaughter.
“Due to his level of intoxication, Hurt allowed his vehicle to veer into the center dirt median,” CHP Officer Jason McEwan's report reads. “Hurt's right front passenger, Lennon Samuel Dibley, was not responsive after the collision.”
The more recent accident involved Los Osos resident Sean Ramirez, 33, who drove his pickup off a Shell Beach cliff on July 8.
City figures fail to show fatal traffic accidents that occur on Central Coast highways by visitors driving to or from Pismo Beach. Prep basketball star Derrick Duff, 18, died March 30 on Highway 101 when he was ejected from a Jeep driven by another teen. The group was heading home to Bakersfield after spending spring break in Pismo.
Sometime in the last few years, discount Internet merchants conceived of a new market for Chinese sky lanterns. A sky lantern consists of a small candle that causes a box kite to become lighter than air. One can purchase them in bulk for as little as $1 apiece.
It makes sense that tourists would want to light them off in the wind shelter of Avila Beach. However, the prevailing wind still blows strong from the northwest above the surrounding hillsides. When it catches a ride on a summer gust, a sky lantern launched in Avila invariably travels toward Shell Beach.
Investigators suspect the sky lantern that crashed into Ontario Ridge on July 30, 2012, followed this course. The resulting brushfire threatened several homes and a cell and radio tower before Cal Fire extinguished the blaze. No structures burned, but the $1 sky lantern cost the public about $50,000 in firefighting costs.
Several Pismo officials described the fire as a wake-up call.
“I’ll be honest with you, I had never even heard of a sky lantern before that,” Higginbotham said.
Both SLO County and Pismo Beach responded to the Ontario Ridge fire by banning sky lantern launching. The ordinances impose a fine for use and hold the violator liable for fire suppression costs.
Cal Fire officials reported another sky lantern caused another brushfire on Ontario Ridge on July 1 of this year. The fire occurred before the Pismo ordinance went into effect, but after the SLO County law did. SLO County Fire Chief Robert Lewin suspects someone illegally launched the fire-starting lantern from Pirates Cove. Investigators never identified the offender to recover the $10,000 firefighting bill.
“Our effort, because this is a new ordinance, is to focus on the prevention end,” Lewis explained. “There’s not an awareness yet.”
With the exception of Morro Bay and Grover Beach, Lewin’s department essentially serves the entire county coastline. Pismo Beach pays the county department $6.8 million over four years to provide service to the city. The cost of fighting two small coastal wildfires hardly broke the financial back of SLO County Fire, which subsists on an annual budget of $15.7 million.
Nevertheless, the launching of sky lanterns provides just a particularly stark example of the type of tourist activity that creates a wildfire risk with a senselessly low corresponding benefit. Fireworks, cigarette butts, and truck pallet bonfires also cause problems.
Not long ago, the beaches around Cayucos posed the greatest problem. When the department focused its attention there, Pismo and Avila emerged as high-risk areas. Lewin reported increased efforts in those towns over the past five years seem to be working, as officers need to write fewer citations each year.
“The Oceano Dunes is still a problem area,” Lewin said. “We’re putting in an effort there with the rangers.”
5. Air quality
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- OUTSOURCED: Pismo Beach pays San Luis Obispo County to provide fire service and enforce its burning laws on its beachfront, which the city leases from the State of California.
Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson created a stir in July when she circulated a petition to repeal a 2011 rule aimed at curbing dust blowing off the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
The Oceano Dunes attract more off-roaders than any other park in California. Visitation peaked at more than two million in 2005 before fuel prices began to climb. According to studies commissioned by the local Air Pollution Control District (APCD), off-road recreation kicks up fugitive dust that the prevailing winds blow onto the nearby Nipomo Mesa.
“We saw about 75 percent more violation days downwind of the riding area than downwind of the non-riding area,” APCD Executive Officer Larry Allen said.
Rule 1001 allows the APCD to assess a fine when dust levels on the mesa exceed state and federal standards, something that happened 70 times in 2012. The California Department of State Parks—the often cash-strapped agency that runs the dunes—never actually paid any fines. That didn’t stop Rule 1001 from becoming a political football.
“Sadly, some members of the board have distorted this for political reasons, and have irresponsibly spread misinformation and fear,” County Supervisor and APCD board member Adam Hill said. “The situation on the board is totally polarized, and it is a terrible disservice to the public.”
To take Hill’s word means the controversy essentially comes down to who gets to play the heavy in enforcing air quality standards set in Sacramento and Washington. Compliance may even require State Parks to occasionally close the dunes.
Whatever the case, the agency must pay to monitor and take steps to reduce dust levels. It currently costs $48,000 to run the monitoring equipment required by the APCD. State Parks spent another nearly $500,000 to install and run 20 voluntary monitors. Mitigation costs remain unknown because the agency hasn’t progressed to the point where it’s implementing large-scale dust control projects.
“That’s not to say we aren’t doing anything,” State Parks environmental scientist Ronnie Glick said. “The Coastal Commission would like us to do a comprehensive plan instead of taking piecemeal steps.”
A show run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would cost a lot more. Local noncompliance in the regulation of Arizona farm dust led to an expensive federal testing program and threats of heavy sanctions against the state and Maricopa County.
“The fact that we have a rule in place and monitoring going on assures the feds that we’re doing what needs to be done,” Allen said. “But they do have the authority to step in if we’re not—for instance, if the rule gets repealed.”
The costs of monitoring and mitigating dust blowing from the Oceano Dunes in no way approaches the $171 million State Parks says the park brings in to the local economy. The dunes clearly present a win if examined in ignorance of the more difficult to monetize interest of protecting the public health, to say nothing of the park’s impact on wildlife.
Allen lamented that the public health cost of particulate pollution tends to get lost in the debate over dollars.
“There was a study that just came out last week that showed a 50 percent increase in cancer risk from long-term exposure to PM10,” he said, “which is what we’re regulating out there.”
Likewise, the Pismo Beach PD budget only shows the expense of policing a large tourist population, not the public’s burden of dealing with the throngs of tourists that seasonally descend on the town.
“I call it event fatigue. We do worry about holding too many events for our residents,” Higginbotham said. “But the flipside of that coin is, if we don’t have tourists coming in here, I can’t provide police and fire.”
Asked if South County governments could shift more of the burden onto seasonal guests—for example by charging an entrance fee at the dunes to pay for dust mitigation—Higginbotham seemed skeptical that tourists would still flock to the area.
“I think you can price yourself out of a market,” she said.
Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be found at the Nipomo Dunes. Just follow the trail of squashed snowy plovers and littered 4Loco empties, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.