Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Council deserves bouquet, not brickbat, for downtown project

I just delivered chrysanthemums to two of my colleagues on the SLO City Council for going forward with the proposed $750,000 investment in two key blocks of our downtown. This council deserved a bouquet far more than a “brickbat” from The Tribune. We were, in fact, demonstrating prudent stewardship of our fiscal resources.

We heard a few complaints about the need for “fiscal restraint,” but we also heard praise for this investment from a variety of sources, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Association, and Save Our Downtown — a rare alliance of business and environmental interests. They know that we’re doing the right thing because this project will:

Improve security and safety with a continuous “mission-style” sidewalk in place of the dangerous mishmash of sidewalk in parts of these blocks. It will improve sidewalk transitions with tree grates, ADA-compliant curb ramps and improved signposts.

Provide a “pilot” demonstration for what is possible downtown, replacing ugly “piecemeal” sections and complementing recent projects such as the Wineman Hotel, Warden Building and the proposed Garden Street Terraces.

Enhance lighting with more efficient and attractive fixtures and more opportunities for nighttime lighting in the future with accent lighting made possible by this project.

Create numerous construction jobs — significant at a time when our construction economy is hurting. (By the way, the low bidder is a local contractor, John Madonna.)

As to the complaints about fiscal restraint, three points must be made: First, we did cut $25,000 proposed for a daytime staff liaison, but staff had good reason to recommend this feature. Construction will only occur at night, adding to the cost but minimizing disruption to our local downtown businesses and their customers. Communication with the daytime business community is essential. Without a dedicated liaison, this function will fall upon our line Public Works staff at a time when they are hard-pressed due to budget reductions.

Secondly, we directed staff to cut other capital improvement program project budgets to assure no net impact on the general fund from the additional $96,000 required for this project. Let’s put that in context: Our 2011-12 financial plan allocates $3,355,800 for capital improvement projects from the general fund. That’s a “hit” of less than 3 percent. I think we can do that.

Finally, there’s a larger point that must be made about “fiscal responsibility”: Some of the people complaining about this project — including The Tribune’s editorial board — are the same people who were urging us to reduce our staffing costs. “Cut staffing,” we were told, “so that we have enough money to spend on capital improvements and maintenance.”

Well, that’s exactly what we did. Our adopted budget reduced staffing by more than nine positions. We are requesting concessions from the remaining staff to reduce staffing costs by about $3.1 million over fiscal years 2011-13. The council itself began that process last week by cutting our own compensation by about 7 percent. I’m confident other city employee groups, including our management team, will do their best to help us meet that target.

At the same time, we kept our capital improvements investment at more than $17.6 million over the next two years — fixing not only potholes but drainage ways, sewer and water lines, parking facilities and even the City Hall steps.

We can’t do everything we’d like to do, but we’re doing our best to fulfill our Measure Y priorities and achieve our major city goals. These goals, which include the downtown facelift, are established in each two-year financial plan after an open and transparent process of public engagement.

Long story short: Our downtown project has a long history and deep support within the community. The contractor’s bid is reasonable in light of increased costs for materials, labor and fuel. Had we rejected the bids on this, its second round, the city would have been seen by our contracting community — correctly — as wasting their time; it is vitally important that we maintain credibility with these folks. (Added “feel-good” note: Our legal team recently saved the city from a $5 million claim by winning a jury verdict favoring the city in a major construction litigation case involving our water treatment facility. We were able to do so only because we have excellent engineers and construction managers to handle our capital improvement program projects, as well as an outstanding city attorney.)

The net result, when we are finished, will be a substantial improvement in those two blocks of our downtown, enhancing safety, security and lighting. I’m looking forward to seeing the results, and I hope that we can continue these improvements throughout the downtown as funding becomes available. Maybe we can even find some place in the project to plant chrysanthemums.

John Ashbaugh is a San Luis Obispo City Council member.