SLO wants to rid downtown of trash, human waste, crime. It’s proposing a new tax to do it

Why there are so many flies in downtown SLO

The city of San Luis Obispo is rolling out measures to reduce the number of houseflies, whiteflies and pigeons that are annoying people downtown.
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The city of San Luis Obispo is rolling out measures to reduce the number of houseflies, whiteflies and pigeons that are annoying people downtown.

The city of San Luis Obsipo is hoping to clean up its central downtown area of trash, human waste, crime, disturbances and other nuisances — and it wants to float a targeted tax to do so.

A proposed new downtown “beautification and visitor services program” is planned to start in January 2020.

The program’s reach has been honed down from a more expansive stretch of downtown to a concentrated area along Monterey, Higuera and Marsh streets after gauging levels of support of downtown property owners who would fund the program through new property taxes, said Bettina Swigger, chief executive officer of Downtown SLO, the nonprofit heading up the initiative.

The new zone targets streets from Nipomo to Osos, which include Mission Plaza, San Luis Obispo Creek, the Children’s Museum, History Center, and the SLO Repertory Theatre.

Four to five uniformed ambassadors would serve the community and tourists in that area.

Currently, one Downtown SLO ambassador carries out duties such as spot washing of sidewalks in the downtown and addressing complaints related to homeless, many of whom sleep on city streets or occupy prime hubs for visitors, such as Mission Plaza where Concerts in the Plaza currently are taking place on Fridays.

A proposed tax would help make downtown SLO a more welcoming place. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Business owners have expressed concerns about the problems stemming from a city homeless population of about 400.

“It takes many contacts, and building up relationships over time, for ambassadors to win the trust of homeless people to be able to help them and connect them to services, especially when it comes to those who suffer from mental illness,” Swigger said. “This is a really important part of what we’re looking at doing — to partner with agencies like the Transitions-Mental Health Association, CAPSLO and other homeless services — to help people, and not just push them out of the downtown because that wouldn’t be effective.”

Pay for city ambassador jobs, if the program is successfully implemented, would likely range from about $17 to $20 per hour, though those wages still would need to be determined, Swigger said.

Downtown SLO envisions its ambassador and beautification program, called a Property-Based Improvement District (PBID), for these blocks in downtown SLO. Nick Wilson

More than 100 similar programs exist in California, called property-based business improvement districts (PBIDs), and Downtown SLO has worked closely with cities such as Ventura to formulate its vision.

SLO Police Department officials also patrol the downtown, and will continue to do so if the new district is formed.

One of the challenges in forming the new district, Swigger said, has been to identify and reach the approximately 120 downtown property owners affected to inform them of the need and benefits of a PBID in advance of a vote that will decide the fate of the new district this summer.

But the organization is close to achieving more than 50 percent of property owners’ signatures needed for the petition that would allow the tax to be floated, Swigger said.

Bettina Swigger, chief executive officer of Downtown SLO Courtesy photo

The proposed new tax, which varies based on the lot and building size, is expected to generate $400,000 in its first year to pay for cleaning, beautification, downtown ambassadors, operations, communications and more. It will take a majority vote of property owners.

Downtown SLO previously had envisioned a more ambitious program of $800,000.

An example of the amount of tax assessed would be an estimated $700 per year for Downtown SLO itself, as the nonprofit would be subject to taxation within the zone at its space at 1135 Chorro St.

Downtown SLO is working with Kentucky-based consultant group, called Block by Block, that helps dozens of communities operate PBIDs nationwide.

The PBID is in the petition phase through July 16, and then, if more than 50 percent of signatures are gathered, it will be presented at City Council to move to a ballot, Swigger said.

“Ballots will be distributed and then the election will be reviewed at a City Council meeting in September,” Swigger said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.