Streamlining government, keeping taxes and fees under control and creating jobs and affordable housing were some of the main themes at a wide-ranging forum Wednesday in Templeton for the four candidates vying for San Luis Obispo County District 1 Supervisor.
More than 50 people attended the two-hour forum at Vineyard Elementary School. Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin, Paso Robles City Councilman John Hamon, former Paso Robles attorney Dale Gustin and Templeton businessman John Peschong are running to succeed Supervisor Frank Mecham, who is not seeking re-election.
The four men expressed many of the same conservative beliefs in explaining why they should be elected. They also fielded questions from the audience on a broad range of topics facing the county, including water shortages, the lack of affordable housing and the controversial Phillips 66 rail spur project in Nipomo.
“Conservative thinking is very important,” Hamon said, summing up a common sentiment at the forum. “We think differently here than they do south of the (Cuesta) Grade.”
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The forum was sponsored by the Templeton Chamber of Commerce and hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Gustin referred to himself as a retired attorney during the forum. However, Gustin’s law license was suspended in 2015.
On June 17, 2014, the State Bar Court of California inactivated Gustin’s license to practice law when he failed to appear at a hearing to consider three counts of alleged professional misconduct on his part. On Feb. 12, 2015, the court placed Gustin on two years’ stayed suspension and three years of probation, including six months of actual suspension.
Half-cent sales tax increase
One of the biggest areas of disagreement among the candidates was a proposal to increase the countywide sales tax by half a percent in order to generate an estimated $25 million annually for transportation improvements.
The tax would make the county what is known as a self-help county. Because self-help counties have their own source of transportation funding, they are much more successful in obtaining state and federal transportation grants.
“If you are not a self-help county, you are at the bottom of the list,” Martin noted.
All but Peschong supported giving county voters a chance to weigh in on the matter in the Nov. 8 general election. Peschong said he thinks the measure will fail.
“San Luis Obispo County does not like taxes,” he said. “Do people in the North County want to pay for bike paths in the South County?”
The others supported the proposal as long as it has an oversight committee to make sure the sales tax money is correctly and efficiently spent. Hamon said Paso Robles recently approved its own half-percent sales tax increase and most people did not even notice it.
Who should manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin — and four other basins in the county identified by state water officials as being over-pumped — is an important issue facing the district. In an effort to retain local control, the candidates agreed that the county, rather than the state, should manage groundwater. In a March election, voters overwhelmingly rejected an effort to form a management district for the Paso Robles basin.
“The people who live over the water and use the water should be the ones who manage it,” Martin said.
Peschong said he opposed the proposed water management district because it was too expensive, with an annual budget of nearly $1 million. In addition to the Paso basin, the Edna Valley, Los Osos, Cuyama Valley and Nipomo Mesa basins are also considered in overdraft.
“I think we have five basins in the county that are stressed, and they need to be managed together,” Peschong said.
The candidates said the Board of Supervisors needs to focus more on affordable housing and streamlining the permitting process. They agreed that the main obstacle to economic development is the lack of affordable housing.
“We also have to have jobs for our low-income workers, and we need to stimulate the economy,” Gustin said.
Fees are too high and this limits affordable housing development, Peschong said. A home can have as much as $70,000 in fees, and it can take six to eight months to get a permit. He wants to get that down to 24 hours for some of the less controversial projects.
“I think incentives are lacking to encourage affordable housing and get housing starts going,” he said.
Phillips 66 rail spur
Safety is the main concern regarding the proposal to add a rail spur at the Nipomo Mesa refinery to accommodate up to five large rail trains a week. Phillips 66 has offered to reduce that number to three trains in order to address safety and environmental concerns.
All of the candidates generally supported the project as long as safety concerns can be addressed.
“If we can put a man on the moon, we can safely move crude through the rail system,” Hamon said.
Martin was the most reserved about the project. He said his main concern is the combustibility of the oil and called them bomb trains because of the potential of one derailing and exploding.
“We already have bomb trains moving through the county; we just haven’t been aware of them,” he said. “The facility has economic benefit, but it must be done safely.”
Rail is a much safer way to transport oil than by truck, Gustin said. The safety rules are sufficient and the county needs the 200 jobs the refinery supplies, he said.
“If we have even one accident, those safety rules will be increased even more,” he said. “Let’s make sure it’s safe, but we can’t lock it out because we need the oil and the jobs.”