Unincorporated areas are second-class citizens of SLO County

From left, supervisors Lynn Compton, Adam Hill and Debbie Arnold listen at a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2017.
From left, supervisors Lynn Compton, Adam Hill and Debbie Arnold listen at a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2017.

Why does discord at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors matter?

To those of you who live in Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo, it shouldn’t concern you all that much. For you, what goes on with the supervisors isn’t a big deal. Those few services the county provides you are under the supervision of other elected officers, like the sheriff or district attorney. The most impactful decisions are made by your city council.

But for the other half of us — those of us who live in unincorporated SLO County — these folks are our city council. They ultimately decide if a neighbor can build that add-on that blocks your view or if an adult store can open up down the block.

None of the unincorporated towns in the county gets a say in more than one supervisory election. Oddly and inequitably, the city of San Luis Obispo — already not impacted much by all this — has input on three supervisory districts, the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th.

It is true, as was stated last week, that the county takes money from one place, such as Nipomo, and puts it elsewhere, as Supervisor Lynn Compton claims. It is also true that it’s Supervisor Compton’s job to get more for her district — but further true that the others are supposed to make sure it works out fairly for the whole county. That’s how the sausage is made.

This latest brouhaha over the allocation of recreation fees only matters because Nipomo isn’t an incorporated city. Why is that? Because in the early 1990s, California counties successfully lobbied the state Legislature to get “compensated” for their “loss” of revenues when neighbors got together to incorporate. In other words, they felt entitled to the property, sales and other “situs” taxes that residents pay. This was made worse in the mid 2000s when the state took away another important source of revenue from any city that might incorporate — the vehicle license fee.

As a result, since the early 2000s — despite a growing economy — population growth of over 5 million and rapid development in unincorporated parts of the state, there have been no successful incorporations, and only four not-so-successful ones — all in Riverside County. These poor cities can’t seem to get going even with the passionate support of their state house reps.

The millions of us who live in unincorporated areas remain second-class citizens with less voice in our democracy at the most local level, less control over our neighborhoods, and here in this county, subject to the oscillations of ideology on the Board of Supervisors between two culturally different parts of the county. That’s not equitable for either side of that divide. Local values should control localities.

Counties have the option of recognizing that the tax money doesn’t belong to them and waiving their “entitlement” to it, as Santa Barbara did for Goleta in 2001. But even that might not be enough, since the shift of vehicle license fees in the early 2000s.

So Nipomo, Los Osos, Oceano, Templeton, Cambria and the rest will see their local taxes shifted to other parts of the county at the discretion of a board whose majority they can never change, while voters living in cities can force changes in one election, just as the city of San Luis Obispo did with the rental inspection program.

This must change — not just here, but statewide — if we are going to have any chance of rational growth choices as the next 5 million people show up.

Sacramento: Are you listening?

Jon-Erik G. Storm is president of the Los Osos Community Services District, an attorney and a political pragmatist. He lives in Los Osos with his wife and two children.