San Luis Obispo residents outline what matters to them

Increased playing time on the city’s soccer fields, preserving Laguna Lake, improved bike paths and a continued focus on economic development are among the requests the community put forward to the San Luis Obispo City Council on Tuesday.

But those desires come at time when the stark reality is that citizens’ wishes and government’s ability to fulfill them do not always match up. The city must cut $3 million in its roughly $54 million annual general fund just to provide existing services.

More than 250 people attended the public forum Tuesday at the Ludwick Community Center meant to give citizens an opportunity to influence the goals that the council will set at a daylong meeting Jan. 29, the kickoff to the city’s next two-year budget cycle.

Attendees rallied Tuesday for the soccer fields at the Damon-Garcia Sports Complex — asking the city to improve the turf conditions to allow for more play time. That complex was borne of community requests at a similar community budget forum years ago.

Residents also asked the city to increase neighborhood support services to crack down on noise disturbances, partying and other nuisances.

Several residents also beckoned the council to closely analyze the recent Financial Sustainability Task Force’s report, which made several recommendations, including putting a binding arbitration clause for police and firefighter unions back on the ballot, reducing staff, and cutting pay and benefits for city employees.

A balance between what the city can offer and what must be cut will have to be found, City Manager Katie Lichtig said.

“We either have to reduce services or cut the cost of our doing business,” Lichtig said.

Public requests such as those raised Tuesday will have to be met by reallocating existing funding to the new priorities, Lichtig said.

“The things that are the most important to folks were highlighted, and now it is a challenge for the City Council to balance those against finding the resources to make them a reality,” Lichtig said.

Mayor Jan Marx said she will approach the challenge by pinpointing future priorities that will have a positive impact for the community as a whole.

“I am going to be looking at things from a business person’s perspective — asking if each priority is an investment in the future of the community, not just financially, but as an investment that will continue to provide for the community for years to come.”

San Luis Obispo’s bleak financial outlook comes after more than three consecutive years of budget cuts. The rising costs of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the effects of the recession have been blamed as the main contributors to what officials call a structural deficit.

Hefty rate increases for city employee pensions are expected to continue over the next five years — costing an additional estimated $3.6 million by 2014-15. That money will come from the city’s general fund — the same pot of money that is used to pay for the services requested by city residents.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.