Implementing the city’s new vision for development, continuing to balance a budget that is saddled with escalating pension costs, and addressing the ongoing need for homeless services will be key challenges facing the members of the incoming San Luis Obispo City Council.
Three seats are up for election on Nov. 4: the mayoral seat and two council seats.
Three candidates, including incumbent Jan Marx, are seeking the two-year mayoral seat. Marx’s two opponents are focused on extreme platforms and single issues, making them longshots for winning.
Donald Hedrick, a community activist who has run unsuccessfully for the City Council four times in the past seven years, is once again on the ballot.
Newcomer Jeffrey Specht says he is furious about the city’s treatment of the homeless — after having several run-ins with law enforcement while on the streets himself — and wants to overturn city management and slash employee salaries.
Meanwhile, five candidates are vying for the two open council seats, which have four-year terms. Only one incumbent is seeking re-election, guaranteeing that at least one new face will join the five-person council.
Councilwoman Kathy Smith is not running to retain the seat she has held since 2010. Incumbent Carlyn Christianson, who was elected to the council last year to fill a two-year vacancy, is running for a new term.
The remaining four candidates are all first-time contenders: Gordon Mullin, a financial planner; Dan Rivoire, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition; Mike Clark, a retired Army colonel with 29 years of service; and Dan Cano, executive director of The LINK, a nonprofit that works with schools and countywide public agencies to deliver assistance programs.
Cano originally sought to challenge Marx for mayor but failed to gather the 20 signatures of verified voters needed — disqualifying him from the mayoral race. He then qualified as a candidate for the council race.
The city's revenues are healthy now, but the council will soon have to make contingency plans to cut the budget by 12 percent if voters don't approveMeasure G
, which would extend a half-percent sales tax that has been levied since 2006.
The council unanimously passed a $134.2 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year on June 17 that includes $62.8 million in expenditures from the general fund.
The balanced budget was not easy to achieve. In 2011, in the depths of the city's budget problems, the council directed staff to negotiate a 6.8 percent cut in total compensation for all employees.
Those contracts, some of which took nearly a year to settle, will start to expire at the end of this year.
The city is also expecting its pension costs to go up significantly by 2016 because of a new set of assumptions adopted by the CalPERS board earlier this year that will increase rates.
That, combined with the potential loss of $6.7 million in annual revenue should Measure G not pass on Election Day, will make it harder to keep the budget in the black in coming years.
While candidates disagree on how they prioritize major issues, all say that addressing unfunded pension liabilities, creating more entry-level and affordable housing and maintaining and adding to the city’s open space are key concerns.
Hedrick and Specht, the mayoral challengers, and council candidate Clark, say they do not support Measure G. The other candidates do.
When asked if the city has done enough in fiscal management by reducing salaries and compensation costs — or if more positions or programs should be cut — the candidates agreed that across-the-board cuts to employee pay was not the solution.
Clark said the city has made significant progress toward controlling salaries and pensions costs in past years by creating a two-tiered pension system.
“We have to be very careful before we just cut drastically,” he said, of salaries and compensation.
Christianson agreed, adding that more can always be done to evaluate salaries and compensation in general.
“Wholesale arbitrary cuts really don’t work in terms of delivering services,” she said. “You need to look at what you’re spending in terms of what you are receiving.”
Specht would overhaul the entire retirement program but did not give specifics on how that would be done.
The city anticipates that larger contributions to CalPERS to cover pension liabilities will be required in the near future, but the city does not have any control over how much it is required to pay in. The new rate structures will be decided by CalPERS.
The city can, however, address the problem by dedicating more money each year to pay down the looming pension debt.
Hedrick said that the city’s top managers are elitist and deserve to have their salaries cut. The “blue collar” workers, who he said earn their pay and compensation, should not.
Marx, who was one of the council members to direct city staff to negotiate a 6.8 percent cut in total compensation for all employees, does not advocate for additional cuts.
She said that maintaining head-of-household jobs at the city is essential.
Rivoire said that uniform cuts to employee compensation would not be effective, but that the city must look at other ways of reducing ongoing costs so it can dedicate more money to projects residents want.
Cano agreed. “We are going down the wrong path if we focus on cutting,” he said. “We need a strong city staff to deal with the types of growth we are going to see.”
In addition to the budget, the next council will be immersed in implementing the newest update to the city’s general plan — the city’s blueprint for growth.
The general plan update, which is nearing completion, calls for denser residential development at the southern end of town near the airport and at the Dalidio Ranch.
The city’s general plan update, however, conflicts with the safety plan drafted by the independent Airport Land Use Commission. The commission’s plan limits development around the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.
A key hurdle ahead for the council, before additional homes can be approved for construction in those areas, will be whether to override the commission’s safety plan.
Nearly all of the candidates agree that more housing is needed — only Hedrick said that he wouldn’t consider the override.
Incumbents Marx and Christianson and council candidates Rivoire and Cano said the override was absolutely needed and a good move for the city.
Other candidates said they would need to further study the issue.
“I would tend to be very cautious and err on the side of safety in making these plans,” said Clark, adding that he believes the airport commission has not been as forthright with information about their safety plan as needed.
Another housing concern also exists in the remaining parts of the city: the number of rental homes now far outpaces home ownership.
Some candidates say that working directly with Cal Poly to resolve what they see as a housing crisis is essential.
“We have to work closely with Cal Poly as it continues to add students faster than it adds housing and as it plans to compete with our local businesses for visitors’ hotel, events and convention dollars,” said Clark.
Mullin emphasized that collaboration with Cal Poly is essential.
“Today there is an imbalance in the number of 18- to 25-year-olds living in our town,” said Mullin. “The city should collaborate with Poly as to the timing and placement of dorms as a means to safeguard our neighborhoods.”
Housing the homeless
Providing housing for homeless people will likewise be a critical issue ahead. It is the top priority in the city’s current budget.
In coming years the City Council will review plans for a Homeless Services Center destined for Prado Road.
That center, which will be built by the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, will replace the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.
Plans call for 100 beds with room for an additional 75 beds, a kitchen, laundry, showers, lockers and storage, as well as offices, a classroom for children and community rooms. Separate dorms for men, women and families will be built.
The Homeless Services Center will be built as a new nationwide focus is emerging on providing housing first, then necessary rehabilitative services.
All of the candidates agree that homelessness is a serious issue in the city, and the majority of them support the homeless center.
The candidates also agree that the county needs to play a larger role in dealing with the problem.
Cano, who said he has run a rapid re-housing program in the county, said he supports the center and is glad that CAPSLO shifted its focus to a sobriety-based programming.
“It made (county) Mental Health step up to the plate,” he said.