Atascadero taxpayers — watch your wallets!
After years of agreeing they would pay for road upgrades needed for the Wal-Mart/Annex project, it looks like the developers are backing out of the deal and stalling the permitting process. On June 14, the City Council OK’d staff negotiating taxpayer financing for Highway 101/Del Rio Road interchange improvements adjacent to the project.
Abrogating the long-standing arrangement — that applicants pay and taxpayers don’t — would constitute a betrayal of those the council purports to represent. Doing so when the city is financially anemic would be unwise and self-destructive. Whether you’re for, against or indifferent to having a Walmart in town, you know socializing the developers’ costs on your back isn’t supposed to be part of the deal.
In a 2005 email, City Manager Wade McKinney assured the council that Wal-Mart would “pay impact fees” for the 101/Del Rio upgrade. In 2007, Wal-Mart told the council and community all the upgrades “will be funded by Applicant ( including) traffic upgrades.” The current draft Environmental Impact Report is explicit: “the project applicant shall be responsible for funding these improvements.”
But the ground began to shift at the June 14 council meeting when Wal-Mart complained that “finances are extremely tight” so it would only pay what it considered its “fair share” of the 101/Del Rio costs ($1.7 of their estimated $3 to $4.5 million). The Annex’s Rottman Group said it’ll pay “normal impact fees,” but no more. So, Community Development Director Warren Frace reported that, due to the developers’ “impasse,” “the EIR and entitlement process cannot move forward,” and “direct city involvement” was necessary.
As the draft EIR points out, the council, not the developers, has the authority to determine the applicants’ “fair share.” The council’s failure to exercise that power on behalf of Atascadero taxpayers represents a significant and potentially very expensive shift from well-established policy.
Meanwhile, obfuscation persists, as most council members and Mr. Frace assert in public they’re only entering into “discussions” about “funding options,” but one council member called them “negotiations.” Mr. Frace described the talks to me as “negotiations” that could lead to a “compromise” by which taxpayers pay for traffic improvements.
It’s worth noting that, at the same June 14 meeting, the council partially closed a $2 million budget deficit by spending reserves; freezing raises, hiring and road maintenance; reducing police and fire supplies and overtime; cutting some departmental expenses by 5 percent; etc.
Under these conditions, a question facing Atascadero taxpayers is: “How many city services are you willing to sacrifice to subsidize the Wal-Mart/Annex-required traffic upgrades?”
Another is: “Should the ‘discussions’ about ‘options’ occur on the record and in public, or, as the council authorized, behind closed doors?”
Although McKinney said the day before that council meeting, “We’re trying to be more transparent, keep everybody engaged,” city management’s record on the public’s right to know about Wal-Mart’s plans would give any taxpayer pause.
City officials consistently denied any knowledge about those plans in 2006. In response to press and public scrutiny, McKinney directed all city workers to keep the public in the dark (May 11), and issued a report to the Council denying staff contacts with Wal-Mart (May 18). By May 30, he was forced to retract that, and a “chronology” released in June (on the city’s website) shows city staff meeting with Wal-Mart and discussing their plans since May of 2005.
When staff brings its report on traffic upgrade financing back to the council for a decision on breaking this so-called “impasse,” it would behoove Atascadero taxpayers to pay very close attention and represent their own interests. That may be the only way to ensure taxation with representation.
David Broadwater lives in Atascadero.