Study: San Luis Obispo spends less than peers on public safety

The San Luis Obispo police station at Santa Rosa and Walnut streets.
The San Luis Obispo police station at Santa Rosa and Walnut streets. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo is spending less on public safety compared to similar cities, but spends more on other staffing and operational costs, according to a recently released benchmark study.

The study also found that the city is close to the median on most comparisons with benchmark cities and that San Luis Obispo remains one of the safest in the state in terms of violent crime and fires.

San Luis Obispo also has the strongest sales tax revenues per capita — something that Wayne Padilla, director of finance and information technology, attributes to tourism and students.

“So much of our sales tax comes from dollars paid by people who don’t live here,” Padilla said. “It is great to have strong sales tax revenue. It is indicative that we are a destination for the masses who want to come to a nice place.”

The benchmark study, titled “Measuring Our Performance” and done by city staff at the San Luis Obispo City Council’s request, is a snapshot of the city’s financial performance in terms of revenue diversity, expense allocation, staffing costs and debt management in comparison with eight cities in California: Davis, Monterey, Napa, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Maria and Paso Robles.

San Luis Obispo, which is home to about 45,000 residents, provides daily services for as many as 90,000 people during business hours when commuters and visitors are included, according to the report.

The city spends an average of $1,250 annually per resident on essential services such as police, fire, planning, recreation and parks maintenance, according to the report. About 2.1 percent of the city’s costs are interest payments on long-term debt. That is about 5 percent lower than cities on the higher end of the spectrum.

The one area where the city is spending more than the benchmark cities is on the staffing and resources of its departments, such as the offices of the city manager, city attorney and human resources.

San Luis Obispo is only outspent by two cities, Santa Cruz and Napa.

In 2006, the last time a benchmark study was done, San Luis Obispo spent the least.

Padilla said it is possible that the other cities in the study may account for some of those costs outside of the general fund — driving down the appearance of how much they are spending.

San Luis Obispo also employs staff that some cities may not — such as a natural resources manager and a biologist, he said.

The benchmark study also compares crime rates, fire response and pavement conditions.

In all, the city spends 51 percent of its general fund on police and fire services, below the 53 percent median of the eight benchmark cities.

In San Luis Obispo, police service costs an average of $308 per resident, and fire service costs $191 per resident (including Cal Poly students) annually.

An additional study, looking at compensation, is underway and expected to be complete in August.

In addition to reviewing the benchmark study’s findings, the City Council will be asked Tuesday night to review a new financial responsibility philosophy.

The philosophy — requested by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce — will guide the city’s future financial decisions. Among the key points:

  • Employee benefits, including pension benefits, should be a shared responsibility between the city and employee.
  • Tools, such as key measures and dashboards, to make financial information available to the public in a timely manner will be developed to increase transparency.
  • Resources will be aligned with community needs and maintaining capital projects.
  • The city will pursue diversified revenue sources and implement plans to reduce unfunded liabilities.
  • “The philosophy formalized individual steps we have been taking all along,” Padilla said. “It commits us to a defined series of expectations and adds a framework for achieving those goals.”