Paso Robles’ City Council election this November is considerably less contentious than two years ago, when public opinion was rife with government mistrust over the controversial $250,000 payout to the city’s former police chief.
But with the state drought and a shrinking groundwater basin fresh in voters’ minds, choosing which elected officials will lead Paso Robles for the next four years will be critical for a city focused on growth, tourism dollars and continuing its climb out of the recession.
Balancing water issues with growth and prioritizing which slashed city services to restore are among the major issues facing San Luis Obispo County’s second-largest city.
Five candidates are vying for two seats on the council, pitting a pair of incumbents against two newcomers and a planning commissioner.
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Meanwhile, the mayor race is already decided, with mid-term councilman Steve Martin running unopposed.
Mayor Duane Picanco is stepping down to run for council, saying he’d like more time for family.
It’s the first time Paso’s mayor will serve for four years instead of two, as voters decided in 2012.
Joining Picanco in the race for the four-year council seats are fellow incumbent John Hamon; Steve Gregory, a city planning commissioner; and new faces Jim Reed, a draftsman, and Pam Avila, the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce’s economic development director.
Reed also ran for council in 2012 but lost by a slim margin to incumbent Fred Strong.
Since Martin is in the middle of his council term, the newly seated city council must decide whether to appoint his replacement or hold a special election for the remaining two years on his seat.
Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Steinbeck announced this summer that he’s not seeking re-election to focus on his real estate business.
Avila is the first female candidate in more than two decades to run for the Paso Robles City Council.
In 1992, candidate Debbie Dusi lost a seat by 11 votes to James Heggarty. Before her, the late Betty Cousins was a councilwoman from 1984 to 1988.
(Listed in alphabetical order with the newcomers first)
Avila moved to Paso Robles in 2004 before briefly moving to Denver; she returned because she missed the Paso lifestyle.
She volunteered with the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce before getting hired there in 2012 to be its first economic development director. She also runs a home-based technology consulting practice.
Avila wants to focus on taking care of local companies, encouraging firms with head-of-household jobs to move to Paso and making sure the city’s streets, parks and public safety services can support growth.
Gregory has lived in Paso Robles for 34 years. He works as project design consultant for homes and small businesses. Gregory developed and built Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort near Avila Beach, where he worked from 1984 to 2006. He also helps his wife, Dawn Gregory, run her Odyssey World Café restaurant in downtown Paso Robles.
He’s been on the city’s planning commission since 2009, serving once as its chair and currently as its vice chair for the second time.
Among his goals are to reopen Centennial Pool, shorten application delays in the city’s building permit process and improve government transparency.
Reed emerged as the newcomer in the 2012 election, gaining about 23 percent of the vote, but was narrowly defeated by incumbent Fred Strong. He’s lived in Paso Robles for 30 years and runs his own business as a CAD draftsman after working in construction.
His wife, Karen, was in the public eye several times in 2009 when she was among those who opposed the city’s water rate increases. At that time, a group of residents unsuccessfully sued the city for water rate reimbursements, although she was not a part of that suit.
In 2012, Jim Reed pushed a platform of change in a city that many distrusted after a controversial payout to former police Chief Lisa Solomon.
Today, he still thinks city funds are being poorly handled and that council members already have their minds made up on certain projects before hearing the public’s input at council meetings, which he pledges to change.
Hamon has worked with his wife, Marjorie, in the family’s garage door business for the last 37 years.
He’s served on the city council for the last eight years, where he’s strived to be been fiscally prudent. He says he’s dedicated to the city’s slogan to “live within our means.”
His platform centers on promoting economic development, improving public safety with a focus on gangs, and putting money back into city buildings and park maintenance.
Martin has lived in Paso Robles for 40 years and served his most recent council stint since 2012. Before that, he spent time working in media and advertising, including heading up tourism promotions for the City of Atascadero. He also served on the Paso Robles City Council from 1987 to 1996, serving as mayor from 1988 to 1990.
Using his communication background to help inform the public, Martin’s campaign is framed on water, economic development and the restoration of city services.
Picanco has been on the council since 1990, serving as its mayor five times (not consecutively). He’s worked to balance the city’s budget and support local business with a focus on the industrial sector.
He opted to run for council instead of seeking to retain his mayor seat, saying it would require less time away from his family.
The retired shoe shop owner wants to help resolve the North County’s water problems and guide the city’s financial recovery.
Water vs. growth
When asked if Paso Robles should stop approving development until the groundwater basin water crisis is resolved, all six candidates said no.
The groundwater basin that serves both the city and various unincorporated parts of the North County has fallen so low in areas that some rural residents’ wells have gone dry, prompting locals to pursue state legislation to form a water district to manage the basin. The governor has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill into law or veto it. Paso’s current City Council supports the formation of the district, which is still in the proposal stage.
City leaders have long said that their actions to secure various sources of water — groundwater, Salinas River underflow, supplemental Nacimiento Lake water and possibly recycled water — combined with its conservation efforts, mean Paso Robles has enough water to grow.
And, any new growth over the city’s current general plan will have to buy into supplemental water to offset the city’s need on groundwater.
City leaders have gone so far as to suggest changing the name of the underground aquifer to the North County groundwater basin to differentiate the two.
Each candidate indicated that a city that’s not growing remains stagnant and that careful planning with a watchful eye on water resources is key to securing Paso’s future.
“There’s that old saying, that if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and inevitably Paso will have to grow,” Avila said. “But we need to do it with some foresight.”
Specifically, she said city leaders have been too quick to approve projects just because they support tourism.
Hamon said the city has planned for its water use, and that the council approves development that helps the city, such as hotels.
“We have the water. We have planned for development,” he said. “It all goes into the economic picture of a city. It builds into TOT (hotel bed tax), and it’s those visitors who are paying the price to come here in that tax which supports our city.”
Picanco said growth equates to a city’s progress, but if new studies should show that the city is running out of water, then he’d support limits on new development.
“We need to be cautious,” he said.
Martin had similar sentiments, adding that city leaders need to “keep a close eye on the state’s drought and its impact on our water resources,” he said. “And, if that starts getting out of whack with our projections, then we need to start taking corrective actions to protect our residents.”
Gregory said he’d work to protect residents’ resources, as he experienced issues with a broken well in the early 2000s at Sycamore Mineral Springs and had to truck in water for a week.
“I’ve been there and would do everything I could do to not let that happen to our citizens. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever been through,” he said.
Reed said he wouldn’t want to infringe on individual property rights by not allowing new development, but he, too, would do so cautiously with keeping water in mind.
Restoring city services
When the state and national economy took a dive in 2008, the recession swept over Paso Robles as with many cities.
Paso Robles instituted a hiring freeze and retirement incentives to keep its general fund budget viable. Over time, the plan resulted in a 34 percent cut to staff, leaving the city with too-few police patrols, one of two city pools closed, weeds in its parks and other maintenance needs overlooked.
In spring 2013, the council set a two-year plan to bring back some of its lost services focusing on public safety, economic development and maintenance.
While the city authorized rehiring some new police officers, the freeze has not been officially lifted.
It remains in effect “because we have not yet recovered to the revenue levels of 2007, and economic indicators remain mixed,” City Manager Jim App said.
Earlier this year, a city budget forecast predicated small gains over the next five years as general fund revenue is expected to rise from $27 million today to nearly $32 million by fiscal year 2017-2018.
A thinning budget, along with tourism dollars in the form of hotel bed tax and sales tax, helped keep the city afloat.
Now, all six candidates say restoring city services is a priority.
“We’re getting money back to our city, so let’s get the pool back open and get some of these things back to the citizens,” Gregory said. “My priority is to change our attitude around town. I’d push to get things done.”
Picanco would like to see the Downtown City Park cleaned up, new paint on buildings and curbs repainted. But he’s worried the economy isn’t fixed just yet.
“I have a concern that my constituents believe we are back to where we were, because we’ve added back some police officers. It’s not,” Picanco said. “(Recovery) is very slow, and all I can say we need to take care of maintenance for our facilities as No. 1.”
Candidate Jim Reed said he, too, would like the downtown park to shine as he was recently embarrassed after bringing a friend to town.
“There was trash in the streets and … the bathrooms were in disarray. I don’t think that’s being run responsibly,” he said of the downtown park. “We need to invest more money there.”
Re-opening Centennial Pool has been a major gripe among Paso Robles residents, since the summers tend to be long and hot.
Centennial Pool was shuttered in 2008 while Municipal Pool remains open. Centennial Pool’s user fees didn’t cover its operation costs when it was open, prompting the city to pay roughly $112,000 each year to cover the gap. Closing the pool has saved the city that amount of money each year.
To reopen it would cost a one-time investment of $154,000 plus the reoccurring cost of annual maintenance, operational and staffing projected at $267,000 each year.
Gregory, Reed and Avila all say opening the pool again is a priority.
“They waste enough in other places. They can reopen the pool,” Reed said.
Avila said she believes “it’s time to stop using the economic downturn as an excuse for not taking proper care of our city’s infrastructure and services.”
Hamon and Picanco said opening the pool can wait.
“I was one of the ones to push to close it down. It saves us $10,000 to $14,000 a month,” Hamon said. “I equate it back to a family that has to tighten its belt when times are hard.”
Martin said he’d like to raise community donations to reopen the pool. As mayor, he hopes to start an annual mayor’s fundraising event, like Atascadero does, where the mayor hosts a dinner each year to gather donations for community projects.
“I’d love for that to be my first project,” Martin said. “It’s a huge community asset and has been sitting unutilized because of the city’s financial restraints. I’m trying to think out of the box to bring these things back to the community and not just let them sit there idle.”
Avila also thinks the community could assist in reopening the pool by bringing in local businesses to help fund or staff it.
“Examples of this type of community-enriching cooperation between the public and private sectors reach from one end of our country to the other,” she said.
THE CANDIDATES AT A GLANCE
Occupation: Runs a home-based advertising, marketing and communications firm. Served on the City Council in 2012; and from 1987 to 1996, serving as mayor from 1988 to 1990.
Political party: Democrat
Occupation: Director of economic development for the Paso Chamber of Commerce. She also runs a home-based technology consulting practice.
Political party: Usually independent, but says she registered as a Republican in order to vote in the last primary.
Occupation: Business consultant, specializing in project design and strategies. Has served on the Paso Robles Planning Commission since 2009.
Political party: Republican
Occupation: CAD draftsman for additions and remodels, energy analyst and a certified green building rater.
Political party: Republican
JOHN HAMON JR.
Occupation: Licensed general contractor and helps run his family's garage door business. Served on the City Council since 2006.
Political party: Republican
Occupation: Retired shoe store owner. Served on the City Council since 1990.
Political party: Republican