SLO needs $440 million for city projects, and it's eying new taxes. Good luck with that

Renovation of Mission Plaza, seen here on the Day of the Dead, is among the many capital improvements proposed by the city of San Luis Obispo.
Renovation of Mission Plaza, seen here on the Day of the Dead, is among the many capital improvements proposed by the city of San Luis Obispo. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

How’s this for sticker shock? The city of San Luis Obispo has a 20-year “to do” list of capital improvements and — gulp! — it’s looking to taxpayers to pitch in as much as $440 million.

Here are some of the big-ticket items on the list, along with the estimated cost to the city:

  • Replace Police Station: $43.7 million

  • Rebuild Fire Stations 2, 3 and 4: $43.5 million

  • Swim Center lockers and site improvements: $18.2 million

  • Bob Jones Trail connections, Marsh Street to Prado and LOVR to southern city limits: $16.7 million

  • Railroad Safety Trail: Class 1 Bike Path from Cal Poly to southern city limits: $15.3 million

  • Dredge Laguna Lake: $13.9 million

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The city is considering a range of taxes to generate revenue for the projects along with other sources of money, including developer fees and state and federal grants.

If you don’t live within the city limits, that doesn't mean you're off the hook. The city may seek another 1 percent sales tax increase — on top of the half-percent voters approved in 2014 when they voted for Measure G.

That means that anytime you purchase something in the city of SLO, be it a bag of potato chips or a new pair of Uggs, you’ll be contributing a little extra money to city coffers.

The city also is kicking around the idea of some form of property tax. It also may levy an additional fee on new development to help fund emergency facilities, including the new Police Station.

We’re already hearing howls of protest: No way is the city getting another nickel out of me!

But before you pass judgment, remember that cities have limited ability to raise revenue, thanks to the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Not only did it strictly limit property tax increases, it also raised the bar for passage of other types of taxes.

As a result, many cities and counties find themselves ridiculously short of revenue to replace facilities that have become woefully outdated and, in some instances, dangerous. (Have you checked out the cracked and buckled sidewalks in downtown SLO?)

We aren’t totally unsympathetic to the plight of local cities.

We also want to commend SLO for making it clear that it will NOT be using any funds from tax increases to take care of its $148 million pension shortfall.

But we do have some questions for the city:

Is this list rooted in reality?

We’ve seen similar lists before; just about every public agency has one. They often reflect what an agency might do with an unlimited budget — just like families might fantasize about buying a yacht if they win the lotto — and not necessarily what it believes it will be able to accomplish.

That redo of Mission Plaza — is it really necessary? And what about new lockers for the swim center? In other words, can you distinguish between “wants” and “needs”?

Nobody really wants to spend $43 million on a new Police Station. But if the city really needs one, San Luis Obispo’s powers-that-be needs to show some leadership and come out and say so.

Did you consider adding affordable housing to the list?

Voters in Southern California approved a quarter-cent sales tax last year to fund housing projects to alleviate homelessness. Some SLO voters might be more inclined to support a tax that would address that problem here.

We’re just saying that some residents might appreciate having a roof over their heads more than new lockers at the swim center.

Wasn’t Measure G revenue supposed to take care of some of these needs?

We know you’ve done it before, city, but be prepared to give a full accounting of how the $7 million per year generated by Measure G has been used, and why there isn’t more of that money available for some of these capital improvements.

Can we get down to the nitty-gritty?

Are you talking about a general sales tax requiring simple majority approval? Or a special tax earmarked for particular projects, which would require two-thirds majority to pass? How long would a new sales tax be in effect? Would you be looking at a property tax measure in addition to a sales tax or one or the other?

Can you really depend on sales tax?

Retail is changing dramatically, with more and more shopping migrating to online. We’ve already seen the effects downtown: fewer retail stores and more restaurants, hair salons and yoga studios that don’t generate the same level of sales tax as, say, a furniture store.

What will happen if taxpayers reject an increase?

In other words, do you have a Plan B?

We don’t want to sound defeatist, because San Luis Obispo voters have been generous; they approved the half-cent sales tax by a 70 percent margin in 2014. And in truth, a 1 percent increase in sales tax isn’t all that much — it’s an additional $1 on every $100 you spend.

But if initial reaction is an indicator, it’s not going to be an easy sell. Of the more than 100 comments The Tribune received on Facebook in response to reporter Nick Wilson’s initial story, we saw only one that unequivocally supported a sales tax increase. One.

Keep in mind, too, that some voters already are fuming over the gas tax and motor vehicle license fee increase Californians are paying to help fund local road improvements.

Again, we’re not saying this is a lost cause, and we appreciate that the city is being transparent about what it will cost to make improvements we’ve been hearing about for years.

But $440 million is an intimidating sum; we urge the city to be prepared for a backlash — and to present some less ambitious options.

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