Who needs D.C.? We have our own dysfunctional Beltway politics right here in SLO County

San Luis Obispo County Government Center
San Luis Obispo County Government Center jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Feeling geographically removed from the political intrigue in Washington, D.C.?

No need. We have our own mini-Beltway right here in San Luis Obispo County.

Like the House and Senate, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is hopelessly split along party lines, and while our supervisors may not have a nuclear option, they can get really, really testy at times.

Now we have another parallel: We just had our very own version of “repeal and replace.” Only in our case, the conservative majority managed to pull it off by adopting a new policy on who pays for groundwater management.

It wasn’t easy.

Along the way, there were allegations of collusion; calls for the district attorney to conduct a special investigation; testimony about a forged document; and accusations that “alt-left agitators” were stirring things up for the sole purpose of discrediting the ruling right.

In the end, the supermajority won out — pleasing property owners who will benefit financially, but alienating a whole lot of people who rightfully feel ripped off.

Here’s why: Rather than requiring property owners to pay their own way by funding state-required groundwater management plans, the board decided county taxpayers should pick up the tab, to the tune of $6 million.

In other words, we’ll all be stuck paying to solve the problems that private property owners helped create when they stuck their straws in basins that are now under threat.

Some of us will pay twice, once by funding basin plans in our own areas — through higher water rates or assessments — and a second time by paying the taxes that will finance plans for those who aren’t willing to pay their fair share.

On top of that, this “replacement” jeopardizes formation of other groundwater sustainability agencies — or GSAs — composed of willing landowners who have volunteered to help fund and implement basin management plans.

With the county now extending its generous offer (at our expense), those volunteers may think twice about writing a check.

If enough back out, that could wind up costing the county even more than $6.1  million — an estimate that was predicated on financial participation by other “partner agencies.” Take away enough of that support and the bill could increase to as much as $8.6 million.

Keep in mind, too, that $6.1 million to $8.6 million is an estimate. Estimates have a way of growing. Just look at what happened in the city of San Luis Obispo, where a relatively short investigation of a complaint sparked by a silly “sexy firefighter” video escalated from an initial low-end estimate of $15,000 all the way up to $70,000.

On the other hand, if we’re lucky, the basin management plans could wind up costing less than $6.1 million. For instance, the state may agree the Los Osos “fringe” area has little or no affect on the greater Los Osos Basin, which is already under a court-approved management plan. That could save the county in the neighborhood of $2 million.

For all our sakes, we hope that’s the case, because every General Fund dollar spent on basin plans is one less dollar for roads, parks and law enforcement.

Let’s hope, too, that the county’s financial participation ends with the planning phase.

As Tribune writer Monica Vaughn reported, there’s been some confusion over whether the county’s financial commitment pertains only to the planning or whether the county will pay the costs of managing groundwater in perpetuity.

Public Works Director Wade Horton said it’s his understanding that the county will pay only for management planning. If projects need to be built, it will be up to the property owners to bear the cost.

But what if property owners refuse to assess themselves to pay for the work?

And why wasn’t it made crystal clear that the county’s offer extended only to the planning phase?

Also, who will enforce the basin plans? Will the county be obligated to do so? And can the county step away from its responsibility at some point, or will it always be on the hook to some degree?

To repurpose a line from President Donald Trump: Nobody knew that water could be so complicated.

For that, we could all be paying a steep price.