San Luis Obispo needs to stop funding the Chamber of Commerce

T. Keith Gurnee

OPINION by T. KEITH GURNEE

Thanks to Jeff Buckingham’s recent opinion piece in CCN calling for approval of Measure G-20 to increase our sales taxes, there’s something else to think about: the inordinate influence that the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce has on our City Council and how heavily it depends on city funding for much of its activities.

Buckingham has been a long-time booster of the chamber having served both as its past president and it’s 2018 Citizen of the Year. Sandy Sigurdson, who signed the Yes on Measure G-20 ballot argument, served for 10 years as the chamber’s executive director for Leadership SLO to groom future candidates for the City Council. It’s not surprising that both would be advocates for raising taxes to continue funding the chamber.

After all, the chamber receives over $300,000 in taxpayer’s funds per year through the city budget and it’s gotten hooked on that revenue for quite some time. Should Measure G-20 be defeated, forcing our City Council to finally become fiscally responsible, the chamber’s funding from the city’s budget might have to be cut or eliminated.

It wasn’t always this way

When I served on the San Luis Obispo City Council back in the 1970s, the chamber was a small operation that received a small annual sum from the city to promote economic development.

Yet during that time, the chamber was the driving force behind opposing city efforts to revitalize downtown San Luis Obispo. It fought the planting of our now mature street trees, the city’s sign controls, and even the completion of Mission Plaza that ignited the revitalization of our downtown. I remember our then visionary Mayor Ken Schwartz decrying the chamber’s constant fight against improving our community.

Back then, our City Council practiced true fiscal responsibility. We were able to accomplish many capital improvement projects including the construction of Mission Plaza and many significant parks and public infrastructure projects without pushing for sales tax increase.

Then along came Dave Garth, the SLO Chamber’s long-standing executive director, who grew the chamber into the political machine that runs our city today. It’s Leadership SLO organization has allowed the chamber to essentially become a political party funded largely by those chamber-friendly members of our City Council.

The chamber strongly backs the candidates it wants and in return those elected to the City Council reward the chamber with over $300,000 of taxpayer funds. If that isn’t quid quo pro, what is?

One needs only to look at this season’s political contributions to see where the chamber’s bread is buttered, including the maximum donations given to Mayor Heidi Harmon by Dave Garth and Eric Justesen, whose wife also served as a former executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Is this any way to run our city?

In recent years, our council has been running our once fine town into the ground: starving our downtown of parking by eliminating public parking lots for two hotel developments without replacing the lost parking, approving high-density buildings on steroids with minimal parking, and demeaning our neighborhoods by ramming bike paths through them and wiping out on- street parking along our narrow residential streets. All have served to diminish the livability of our community.

Also, on this and previous council’s watches, our once vital downtown has become a dirty husk of its former self. With rampant homelessness, aggressive panhandling, and so many vacant storefronts plaguing our downtown, it’s a different place today.

Toss in the constant social unrest that our mayor has invited into our downtown (at great expense in police overtime), only to disrupt, harm, and attempt to extort local businesses struggling to survive, and what do you have? A downtown where an increasing number of local residents now find themselves no longer comfortable being there.

Our downtown doesn’t need any more challenges than it already has. Then the city asks voters to permanently triple the city’s sales tax rate when businesses are most vulnerable. And it does this at the same time as State Proposition 15 might just pass just a week from now, resulting in significant rent increases by commercial landlords to cover the accelerated property taxes on their properties.

This double whammy of taxation could be the final straw for many of our local merchants.

And in the face of all this, what does our so-called “business friendly” chamber do? It’s the lead supporter of the sales tax increase that would allow our mayor and City Council to spend $22.6 million in general fund revenue on other things like backing the mayor’s ideological social agenda, increasing management salaries, putting bike paths where they don’t belong, and– of course– continuing to fund the Chamber of Commerce.

Exercising fiscal responsibility

It’s time for a change in our city’s governance. Should Measure G-20 go down to defeat, let the City Council’s first act be the elimination of funding to the Chamber of Commerce. It’s finally time the chamber be funded solely by its members rather than us taxpayers.

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