SLO County half-cent sales tax hike likely headed to Nov. 8 ballot

San Luis Obispo County is less than a week away from placing a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that will ask voters whether to levy a new countywide half-cent sales tax. The tax would raise $225 million over nine years to fund transportation projects.

County supervisors Tuesday approved the details of the ballot measure in a 3-2 vote. On Wednesday, the measure will go before the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, the county’s transportation planning agency, for approval.

All seven of San Luis Obispo County’s cities have already approved the measure. Next Tuesday, supervisors will vote whether to actually place the measure on the ballot.

That approval is all but certain. Both the San Luis Obipso County Board of Supervisors and SLOCOG have repeatedly voted in favor of the measure as it wended its way through the county’s regulatory process.

County supervisor votes have all been by 3-2 margins, with Supervisors Frank Mecham, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voting in favor and Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton voting against.

55 percentfor local road repair and maintenance

25 percentto cut congestion on major roads and highways

20 percent for public transportation, bike and pedestrian pathways

As in past discussions, Arnold and Compton said they did not want to burden county residents with any more taxes. Compton said the tax would be regressive and hurt the poor more than the rich because everyone pays sales taxes.

“All of the county’s seven cities already have transportation sales taxes in place,” Compton said. “In my opinion, this is a transportation slush fund.”

The other three supervisors argued that additional funding for the county’s roads and highways is desperately needed. They also said they wanted to give voters the chance to decide whether to levy the tax. Approval of the tax would require a two-thirds majority vote.

“I would no more deny you the vote on this than anyone else,” Mecham said. “What we are doing here is giving you the opportunity to make this choice.”

More than a dozen members of the public spoke during the hearing. Most were against the tax. Critics called the tax a scam, a ponzi scheme and blackmail by Sacramento which has taken most of the county’s transportation funding.

“These tax moneys are never accountable,” Leslie Halls of San Luis Obispo said. “They take money away, and we never see it again. We are never going to get this money back.”

Several people spoke in favor of the tax, saying it is up to local people to step up to the plate and take care of their own roads. Lea Brooks of San Luis Obispo, with the group Bike SLO County, said she appreciates that 10 percent of the sales tax will go to bike and pedestrian trails.

“To me, true freedom is traveling under your own power,” Brooks said.

Others said they agreed with the majority of the supervisors that voters should have the right to make the final decision.

“I don’t take for granted that this will pass, but the public should be allowed to vote it up or down,” Eric Greening of Atascadero said. “Please put this on the ballot whether you support it or not.”

Throughout June, the county’s seven city councils voted to approve the measure that would generate $25 million annually for road maintenance and improvements over nine years, generating a total of $225 million.

A major component of supervisors’ vote Tuesday was approval of a plan for how the money would be spent.

If approved, 55 percent of the funds would go to local jurisdictions for their own projects, including road repair and maintenance. Another 20 percent would fund projects for public transportation and bike and pedestrian improvements including the Bob Jones Trail.

Another 25 percent would be used to reduce traffic congestion on major roadways and highways. Several of the top priorities for this funding would be Highway 101 through Shell Beach and Pismo Beach, as well as improvements on Highway 1 through the North Coast.

Approval of the sales tax would make San Luis Obispo County what is known as a “self-help” county, because it will have its own dedicated source of transportation funding rather than relying on state and federal funding.

Twenty California counties, which contain 84 percent of the state population, are self-help counties. Self-help counties are much more likely to obtain grants and matching funds, said Ron De Carli, SLOCOG executive director.

The main reason for the lack of transportation funding is that much of it comes from gas tax revenues, which have fallen significantly in recent years. Low oil prices have made gasoline much cheaper and the increased popularity of fuel-efficient cars has reduced the amount of gasoline being purchased.

The estimated cost of the sales tax election is $300,000. For more information, go to selfhelpslo.org.

How the money would be spent

55 percent for local road repair and maintenance

25 percent to cut congestion on major roads and highways

20 percent for public transportation, bike and pedestrian pathways