Morro Bay’s council candidates squared off for the first time Sept. 24 in a virtual forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, with several distinct differences emerging between the hopefuls.
Held via Zoom, the forum focused on business matters with those participating asking or texting questions to the candidates. The over 50 citizens who logged on were split into smaller groups, with each candidate being zoomed in and out of the chat rooms. Therefore the questions posed were not exactly the same for each person.
Asked why she wanted to be on the council, political newcomer Laurel Barton said she heard that incumbent Councilwoman Marlys McPherson was not seeking re-election, which “Left a pretty significant hole on the council,” Barton said. “I thought I could fill it.”
She said her biggest goal was to finish the Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) being built now, noting that it has been “a source of great contention” in town.
What does she see Morro Bay being like in 2030? Barton said she thinks the town needs to turn its attention to workforce housing, decrying commuters’ morning exodus leaving town to work in San Luis Obispo, while an equal number that lives elsewhere drive into town to work. “That’s an area we need to work on.”
She expressed support for Measure E-20, a 1% sales tax hike that’s on the November ballot.
Mayoral challenger, John Weiss, was asked about E-20. “I do not support the one percent tax,” Weiss, who owns his family’s business Coast Electronics, said.
What would he do differently than the current mayor? “I would not rubber-stamp the 40-plus change orders on the WRF,” he said, referring to the June Council vote to approve change orders totaling some $5.9 million that raised the treatment plant’s construction costs to $74.9M. “I would be more critical on that.”
Faced with Coronavirus-linked drops in tax revenues, the City took a chainsaw to costs, laying off over 70 employees with the remaining workers taking pay cuts; and then dipping into the emergency reserves to balance the budget. Weiss was asked how would he handle the budget issue?
He noted that in Los Angeles, the government is furloughing employees for two days a month, which is helping that city bridge many millions in lost revenues. “We have a $1 million shortfall,” Weiss said. His furlough plan would cover that shortfall without having to raise taxes, he said.
Weiss was asked his position on reopening the economy? While admitting that as a mayor, he couldn’t override the Governor’s orders, he nevertheless supports getting back to work.
“I think the restaurants are hurting,” he said. “I go down and get takeout all the time to help them out. They are barely hanging on.” He believes that businesses could reopen safely adhering to COVID guidelines, as he has done with his business, which was declared an essential business and has remained open.
Mayor John Headding, running for his first re-election, said the budget issues predate the pandemic, but “COVID hit and brought a significant impact to the City. From March to June, the City lost $1 million in revenues.”
He noted that 10 years ago, the City had 100 employees, 99 in 2019, and now that number is way down. “We’ve gone from 99 to 88,” he said. “Literally, there is nowhere else to cut except the police and fire departments. We need to add police services to ensure the safety of the community.”
He added, “From the inside-out, we are cutting into the bone.”
As for the future, Headding said he sees three opportunities to diversify the economy.
First, is the City working with Vistra Energy, owners of the power plant, on a battery storage facility that he said has the potential to bring in “$355,000 a year to the general fund,” through increased property taxes.
He sees the proposal to build a wind energy farm offshore as a second major opportunity for City revenues and jobs; and the third is to form a “harbor district” that would include a parcel tax on private property to fund improvements to the Embarcadero.
“A hundred dollars a year per parcel,” he said, “would raise $1 million. Right now, it’s zero and has been for over 10 years.”
Former Councilwoman Betty Winholtz was also concerned about the WRF, and the cost increases already approved. “The oxymoron of that ‘maximum guaranteed price’ is going to be changed again,” she predicted.
She opposes the sales tax hike. “I’ve come out against the 1% sales tax because it’s a regressive tax.” She explained that sales taxes hit lower-income residents harder because it’s a larger percentage of their incomes.
She said the City could move City Hall into the second floor of the community center, sell the current site (at Harbor and Shasta), or lease it to someone that would redevelop the site, emphasizing affordable housing.
She was asked her feelings on the school district’s plans to build affordable housing at Morro Elementary?
Winholtz recalled that the district had broached the idea after it closed the school (when she was on Council), and the Quintana Family that sold the property specifically for a school site (being paid a $20 gold piece) has claims on the land. “The City knows it, the school district knows it, and many people in the community know it,” she said.
She favors preserving the historic main school building that dates back to the early 1930s.
Council candidate Richard Sadowski said he is “adamantly opposed” to the sales tax hike, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction” to the COVID revenue losses that hurt lower-income people and the business community.
As to the budget, Sadowski said the City had taken $1 million out of reserves “to make the numbers look good before the election. And that’s not good.”
He supports Weiss’s furlough idea. “The hard truth is that we’re coming up to some tough times and tough decisions to be made.”
He believes the City has five basics functions — police and fire protection, providing drinking water, handling the town’s sewage, and maintaining the streets.
He supports taking a pause on the WRF, “And make sure the citizens are getting the best value for their money. We need to stop this runaway train.”
Incumbent Councilman Robert Davis said he supports the Harbor Departments recently started a pilot program to rent out RV camping spaces at three sites around the waterfront. “I support it on a temporary, trial basis,” Davis said. Often times, “Things look good on paper, but you have to try it out and see how it works.” He will reserve judgment until the pilot project ends in January.
He supports E-20. “I support E-20 because I think it is critical to our City’s survival,” he said. “Without additional revenues, our city is in danger of not surviving. If we’re not able to provide the basic services of health and safety to our residents, we are not a city.”
He disputed the City has a budget shortfall, explaining that the budget is balanced, after cuts and spending $2 million of reserves, a situation he said could not continue.
He noted that the City is currently having appraisals done on all the various properties it owns around town, but that selling unneeded properties wouldn’t be a long-term solution.
He likes the school district’s plans for Morro Elementary. “I am excited to explore that,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to build higher-density housing in the center of town.”
He added that such affordable housing could possibly attract young families to town. “We need young families,” he said, “to rejuvenate ourselves.”
Voting in San Luis Obispo County is slated to start on Halloween (Saturday, Oct. 31) and continue daily to Tuesday, Nov. 3. Voters should be receiving ballots in the mail in early October. A ballot box will be set up at City Hall, and the community center will be the lone polling place in town.