Tax to keep downtown SLO clean and help the homeless is abandoned after outcry

A proposed tax to help clean up downtown SLO has been abandoned.
A proposed tax to help clean up downtown SLO has been abandoned. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A property tax assessment plan designed to clean up downtown San Luis Obispo and reduce problems related to homelessness has been pulled from consideration.

Downtown SLO — the nonprofit that was coordinating the effort in advance of a vote of downtown property owners —announced Tuesday that it’s withdrawing the initiative.

The intended program first envisioned a property tax assessment that would have provided $800,000 to fund a team of eight ambassadors to greet tourists and direct homeless to services, as well as clean up trash, human waste and graffiti in the downtown.

Complaints from some business owners, tourists and locals helped inspire the proposed initiative.

After receiving initial feedback from some property owners, Downtown SLO later reduced the boundaries of the proposed district to a tighter downtown core, including the main streets within the boundaries of Nipomo, Marsh, Osos and Palm streets.

The latest proposal was to generate $400,000 in its first year to pay for cleaning, beautification, four to five downtown ambassadors, operations, communications and more.

“We will not be moving forward with this initiative at this time,” Bettina Swigger, Downtown SLO’s CEO, said in a statement. “While (property-based improvement districts or PBIDs) have been successfully implemented in more than 100 cities across the state, and more than 1,000 exist in North America, questions have surfaced in our community, and this issue has become divisive.

“Our goal as an organization has always been and must remain to present a unified voice for the businesses in the downtown.”

Crowds pack Higuera Street for the Downtown SLO Farmers Market on a warm summer evening in 2011. A new property tax idea in the downtown was abandoned to help bring seven new ambassadors to the city to provide visitor information, and help with services. Downtown SLO will continue to host Farmers Market events. Nick Lucero The Tribune

Kathy Godfrey, a SLO property owner who lobbied against the plan, said Wednesday that she was pleased Downtown SLO recognized the divisions the PBID was causing.

“I believe we were all universally aligned in our desire for a cleaner downtown with less unhoused but do believe these are more complex challenges that require different solutions than PBID was able to offer,” Godfrey said. “We appreciate all of the community support we garnered during the process — success always requires an entire village worth of intervention.”

Swigger told The Tribune that Downtown SLO collected 52.7 percent of the roughly 120 property owners’ signatures on a petition to move the vote forward. The organization needed more than 50 percent to proceed with a vote.

The organization, whose board convened Tuesday and discussed the issue, felt it needed to “ensure that our broader membership and the community at large have a greater understanding of the value of the PBID assessment and its positive impacts,” Swigger said in her statement.

“As downtown continues to evolve, with a healthy mix of longtime and new businesses, and more opportunities for residents and visitors to enjoy local businesses, our primary directive must be to continue to foster an economically vibrant downtown,” she added. “Through thoughtful conversation with our membership, we will be refocusing our energy to engage with our business community on a shared vision for our downtown.”

Downtown SLO envisioned an ambassador and beautification program, called a Property-Based Improvement District (PBID), for these blocks in downtown SLO. The proposal has been abandoned, however, based on divisions in the community about the idea. Nick Wilson

Swigger said she doesn’t envision a plan to pursue another property-based improvement district in the near future.

The organization will continue to employ its sole ambassador in the downtown, Austin Bertucci, and partner with nonprofits to help connect homeless to services, clean up the downtown area and creek and maintain safety.

Downtown SLO also manages Concerts in the Plaza and Farmers Market, among numerous other events.

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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.