Reporters are happiest when councilmen are blowing city coffers on pointless pet projects. It gives the job purpose, embarrasses politicians, and inspires readers to get angry and involved. When officials act like idiots, newspapers fly off the racks and awards are passed around like herpes (the bragging rights that come with Pulitzers last forever, too). Unfortunately, city hall isn’t all ineptitude and corruption. Sometimes big piles of money are spent on worthwhile projects.
In June of 2006, San Luis Obispo city residents approved a half-cent sales tax increase, dubbed Measure Y, that puts an extra $5.5 million or so in the general fund every year.
The language of the measure implied that the money was necessary to “protect and maintain essential services” like street paving, flood protection, public safety, and open space preservation. The measure promised citizen oversight and regular independent financial audits, but without categorically earmarking the funds for specific purposes, the City Council could spend the money however it wanted.
Let’s see what they’ve done:
The audits show that between June of 2008 and June of 2011, $6 million was spent on street reconstruction and resurfacing, covering 170 miles of road with new black top. Storm drains on Broad Street, Almond Street, Mission Lane, Stafford Street, Rockview, and Higuera were repaired or replaced for $990,000, and the Mission Plaza got a new staircase for $102,200. For $368,400, the Senior Center got a new kitchen and parking lot. Overall, more than $11 million went to operating programs and capital improvement for the city’s infrastructure during the three-year period.
At the same time, police protection and fire fighting programs garnered an extra $4 million, enough to pay for select training programs and the salaries for a full-time fire marshal, assistant administrator, police dispatcher, patrol officer, traffic sergeant, and traffic officer. Police headquarters also got a spiffy paint job for $80,000.
Projects aimed at traffic congestion relief—including street light replacements on Broad Street and the design costs of bridges for the Bob Jones bike trail and eventual Los Osos Valley Road interchange—got $1.1 million. Another $1.4 million was spent on open-space preservation. Measure Y money helped the city acquire the Froom Ranch reserve, adding 310 acres to the “green belt” that runs along the western edge of town.
Those million dollar programs dwarfed the $160,000 in Measure Y funds that went toward downtown beautification over three years, but a sudden spike to more than $760,000 in late 2011 has some residents crying foul. The full sum is being spent on just two blocks of mission style sidewalks for Higuera Street, on which construction is now underway.
The Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club released a newsletter in December that featured an article criticizing the project as a bait and switch. Downtown beautification was never mentioned in the ballot measure, and citizen surveys consistently rank the idea as a lower priority than fixing potholes and maintaining open space reserves.
“That’s $700,000 plus that won’t be available for those projects … or the ongoing restoration projects along San Luis Obispo Creek, or completion of the Bob Jones City to Sea Bike Trail,” Sierra Club chapter President Andrew Christie told New Times. “Those purposes really are Measure Y priorities. … The beautification of Higuera Street—despite the colorful signs proclaiming it to be—is not.”
Though no funds are set aside this year to complete the Bob Jones City to Sea Bike Trail, the construction costs (estimated to be $700,000) are included for the 2013 budget.
Mayor Jan Marx defended the downtwon improvements, saying that Measure Y is a general purpose tax and that projects parallel city goals, which she says are established publicly with the help of community forums, yearly surveys, and input from advisory boards.
“It was a mistake to call it beautification,” Marx said. “It’s not glamorous stuff, mostly nitty-gritty improvements.”
Marx admitted that new trashcans, bike racks, and signage were part of the spending, but she said the bulk of the money went toward sidewalk replacement, conduits for pedestrian lighting, and tree grates that will keep roots flat so that they don’t destroy all the work. The bid from contractor John Madonna Construction Co. prices seven trashcans at a total of $16,450, the bike rack at $3,600, and new posts and signs at $4,060.
In normal circumstances, such improvements would be tied to new developments. The Garden Street Terraces will foot the bill for beautification around that construction site, as will the long awaited Chinatown development, but most of downtown is historic, and will therefore never be redeveloped. Thus, the city will have to chip in on occasion to maintain a consistent atmosphere, Marx said.
Last January, 240 residents partook in an open forum to assess the city’s priorities. Ideas were written on large flip charts and posted to the walls of Ludwick Community Center. Then, everyone was given five stickers to place on the charts representing his or her main concerns. Reducing traffic congestion and improving leisure services (especially at Damon Garcia Park) were the clear winners with more than 500 votes each. The demand for preserving open spaces did beat out downtown improvements, but not when combined with votes for economic improvement, which city officials consider inexorably linked.
“The downtown district is SLO’s crown jewel,” Assistant City Manager Michael Codron told New Times. “Keeping it vibrant and healthy is essential to our economic future.”
Leslie Halls, an outspoken conservative and former president of the SLO Property Owners Association, said the city could fund most of these projects without the extra tax revenue, if city salaries and benefits weren’t out of control. Line item reductions for the city’s 2012 budget show that a school resource officer costs $147,800 a year, and the city allocates $107,900 every year on a single dispatch technician.
“We pay outrageous police salaries,” she said, “but we have hardly any serious crime.”
When the measure passed in 2006, the housing bubble was at its peak, the economy was booming, and city revenues were high. Halls said there shouldn’t have been any need for more money.
Since the recession began, several programs were cut that many residents would describe as “essential services.” Despite marginal growth this year, two investigative services officers retired without being replaced; the fire chief lost an assistant; a recreation manager disappeared; and trash services were reduced by $20,000. City officials say it could have been worse.
“We went through the great recession, yet city services are still very high,” said Codron. “That’s absolutely a result of measure Y resources.”
Before the passage of Measure Y, the sales tax rate in San Luis Obispo was 7.25 per cent, the lowest level allowed by the state, and Paso Robles and Atascadero are the only cities in the county that don’t currently charge an additional half-cent local-use tax. SLO’s will expire in November of 2014 unless voters extend it with a simple majority. City hall said no decision has been made as to when exactly residents will decide, but Gov. Jerry Brown recently revealed plans to put his own half-cent increase on the ballot for November of 2012.
Calendar Editor Nick Powell can be reached at email@example.com.