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One Big Difference Amongst Council, Mayor Candidates

By Neil Farrell

Candidates for Morro Bay Mayor and City Council didn’t show a lot of stark differences in their positions at the Sept. 24 candidates forum, with one big exception — the 800-pound gorilla of a sewer project that’s hung over the heads of residents for the past five years.

Candidates for Morro Bay Mayor and City Council didn’t show a lot of stark differences in their positions at the Sept. 24 candidates forum, with one big exception — the 800-pound gorilla of a sewer project that’s hung over the heads of residents for the past five years.

With more than 100 voters packing the Community Center, two Mayoral candidates — Councilman John Headding and business owner John Weiss, and five council candidates — Dawn Addis, Jesse Barron, Jan Goldman, Jeff Heller and Betty Winholtz — faced off, with the League of Women Voters running the show, and AGP Video taping the proceedings for broadcast on Charter Cable Ch. 20 (check: slo-span.org for schedule). Voters on Nov. 6 will select a new Mayor and two Council members.

The candidates seemed to have a lot in common. All espoused strong support for protecting the environment, for providing low-income, affordable housing and affordable workforce housing, as well as support for an offshore wind energy farm.

During opening statements, Headding, a pharmacist with a store in town, recounted his resume including working in hospital administration as a COO and CEO for Dignity Health, overseeing more than 200 employees, seven years owning a pharmacy in Cambria (which he sold) and 8-years with the Morro Bay store. 

He is a 1-term councilman who decided to run for mayor instead of re-election.

Weiss, whose family has had Coast Electronics/Radio Shack for decades said he has the vision to create a better and more affordable life for people in Morro Bay. He has been in Rotary since 2001, served as its President and a regional governor, was president of the Chamber of Commerce four times, as well as the Merchant’s Association. He said he would make sure the Council appoints the most knowledgeable and respectful people to city boards and commissions.

Heller said everyone was there tonight, “because we all love our city. It’s full of cantankerous citizens and I can be one of them.” He said he co-founded the anti-sewer project group, “Citizens for Affordable Living” or CAL, because of problems he saw with the City’s project through his experience managing large construction projects, and to show “how a diverse group can focus on a single issue and have an impact.”

He added that in order for the City to survive, “we have to change how we do business. It’s up to us [the citizens] to build a consensus and bring that to the city council.”

Winholtz, who served on the Morro Bay City Council from 2002-10 said, “There is a lot of fear in town. Fear we won’t build the sewer and fear that we will build the sewer.” She questions why the City asked Distassio’s [Italian restaurant] to move [from a city-owned building] and put in a non-visitor serving use [real estate office]? Why is the City not preparing now for the big PERS balloon payment that’s coming? 

“These are indicators that there is something wrong,” said Winholtz.

Addis said she sits on the Citizen’s Finance Advisory Committee that oversees the City’s finances in particular the spending of the Measure Q sales tax monies. She is a teacher in Los Osos and a mother of two — one a senior at MBHS and the other a 7th grader at Los Osos Middle School — and an activist, one of the founders of Women’s March San Luis Obispo. 

“I have a track record of getting things done,” Addis said. “I have the ability to pay attention and to bring people into the fold.”

She has five main points for her campaign — boosting the economy, keeping the coast clean, building attainable housing, repairing the infrastructure, and “to make sure all voices are heard.” 

Barron works as a plans examiner for SLO County for the past four years and did the same job for Kern County for 10 years before that. He’s also a U.S. Air Force veteran. “A vote for me is a vote for good government,” Barron said. 

He’s working on a master’s degree out of Cal State Bakersfield and is actually using the Morro Bay sewer project as his case study. “I’ve got more than 20 total years in government,” he said. His priorities are to amend the City’s vacation rental ordinance, protect environmentally sensitive habitat, and “getting our WRF built.”

Goldman was a special education teacher before retiring to Morro Bay 11-years ago. She’s attended most of the council meetings the past 6 years, she said, and gone to every workshop on future growth, and the Water Reclamation Facility (WRF). She also sits on the Public Works Advisory Board or PWAB. “I know a lot about this city that most of us take for granted.” She’s also sitting on the City’s General Plan Advisory Committee, helping to update the general plan and local coastal program. She’s also the Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Citizen of the Year.

Asked about a perceived future budget shortfall of as much as $4 million and how would they address it? Headding didn’t agree that the City was in dire financial straits. 

He pointed to the City’s healthy general fund reserves, which are at an all-time high of $3.9 million (29.3% of total budget), as a sign the City’s finances are healthy. The City has increased its reserves, he said, and already addressed the pension funding gap.

Weiss would cut the legal costs the City pays. Not so long ago, before a previous council fired the in-house city attorney and contracted legal services out, Weiss said the City was spending about $200,000 a year. Now, “We’re spending from $407,000 to $550,000 depending on who you ask.” 

Weiss said the city’s tourism “is stagnant at best.” Morro Bay had a system that increased TOT every year but then, Weiss said, the City took it over and, “Now we’re not having the results we expected.”

Addis said she would support making cutbacks and increasing revenues. She agreed with the notion to pay down the unfunded pension liabilities and change how the City works. She’d streamline the staff and grow the economy through cannabis dispensaries, which have the potential to bring more taxes, and the Choice Energy Program, which she said also has the potential to bring “a few million dollars” into the budget.

Barron said managing the retirement costs was critical, and “we need to deal with the public employee contracts.” He too thinks the cannabis industry will bring in a lot of taxes and wanted to see a better return on harbor lease sites when they come up for renewal.

Goldman said the wind energy proposal was a good chance to bring in revenues but she too doesn’t see a dire picture of the City’s finances. “Seems to me,” she said, “we’re not in as dire shape as we were years ago.”

Heller noted the City is required to pass a balanced budget every year but they’ve been doing it by taking money out of the savings [reserves].

Winholtz said there are a lot of good ideas to increase revenues but offshore wind farms were still years away if they happen at all. When she was on Council, they had a terrible budget crisis and looked at savings through attrition of employees, stretched their discretionary spending budgets and expanded staff’s duties.

As to ideas for more affordable housing, Weiss said the planning department “is not user friendly.” He would encourage more investment in town by making the process friendlier and use qualified engineering firms to augment city staff and to do inspections. 

Headding opposes rent control, feeling it would only stagnate development. He would look at secondary or granny units as a source of more affordable housing.

Barron said affordable housing was a statewide problem. “We live in paradise,” he said, “and paradise is expensive.”

He also said, “I think the planning department does a great job.” 

Goldman advocated for allowing people to convert garages into studio apartment and push for accessory units to be built on larger lots. The City could reduce the cost for new housing by not requiring 2-car garages.

Heller said the City has been “struggling to update the general plan for 4 years.” They’ve spent more than a million dollars “and have nothing to show for it.” 

Winholtz said she has long been an advocate for requiring property, zoned R-3 and R-4 (multi-family), should not be allowed to have single houses built on them. She’s also not a fan of vacation rentals.

“Short term vacation rentals hurt us.” She would cut the allowed number of VRs from the now-allowed 250 and make them all be posted with information as to who is responsible in case of problems with renters.

Addis wants to elevate “attainable housing” as a City goal and form a task force to work on it. Also, develop ready-approvable plans for secondary units, so someone could just adopt those plans for their properties and get quick, easy City approval. 

As for vacation rentals, Headding n0oted the issue was due back at City Council soon but that he doesn’t like unsupervised rentals. The city’s ordinance needs to have stricter rules and penalties for violators.

“If someone violates their permit, it gets terminated,” Heading said. He added that of the 250 allowed, just 170 are “active” and if one falls inactive, “It should no longer be allowed.”

Weiss wants to see an ordinance in place that requires owners to consult with their neighbors before renting their home out; he wants limits on the number of people that can occupy a rental and to see the ordinance “tightened up.”

 Goldman said the City was rewriting its ordinance right now and that vacation rentals were a good source of tax dollars. She said VRs are a good source of income for the owners but take away long-Heller favors phasing them out in residential neighborhoods calling them “a commercial use in residential neighborhoods.”

Winholtz said if someone has extra rooms in their home and wants to rent them out, while they are home, like “an old fashioned B&B, I have no problem with that.”

The ones people buy for the specific reason of renting them out short term she does support. She wants to see a wider buffer in between rentals, a limit on the number of people and cars. She would also lay down fines and place restrictions for those that don’t abide by the rules.

Addis said she is a proponent of neighbors talking to neighbors when issues arise. She pointed out that the current “hot line” to City Hall often rings unanswered. “It won’t matter what the rules are if you don’t enforce it,” she said.

Barron favored cutting the number to 200 licenses and to include a wide buffer zone.

With three mini-motel projects being proposed for the 700 block of The Embarcadero, none of which includes parking for motel guests, the candidates were asked for their ideas on employee and customer parking?

Weiss said the parking issue comes around every few years. He said the waterfront has a great need for more handicapped parking, otherwise, “parking is not a big issue.” 

HE criticized the City for making a deal with the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila beach to take over the Morro Bay Aquarium lease site and build a new aquarium charging just $1 a year rent when “The Avila aquarium has been losing money.” Distassio’s was allowed to become vacant and then become a real estate office. 

Headding said the council should have been looking at parking two years ago. He said the real estate office at Distassio’s (on market Avenue) is a temporary use and the City wants to redevelop that property and the parking lot below it (714 Embarcadero) into a big motel and multi-story parking garage, which the City is calling “Market Place Plaza.” 

Addis said she’s a proponent of paid parking, but only if local residents could purchase parking permits. She wants to encourage more bicycling and walking so we don’t need so much parking.

Barron said, “I think paid parking is the way to go.”

Goldman said there should be more diagonal parking uptown and more spaces should be developed away from the Downtown.

Heller said he’s from Southern California so, “I don’t see us as having a parking problem.” He supports paid parking as well, “We need that money.”

Winholtz said she is totally against paid parking in Morro Bay “It’s against our character,” she said. She noted that when she came to town in 1986, there was a parking garage planned for the Front Street parking lot (and accessed from Surf Street), where the Maritime Museum is now been built. She pointed out the parking lot at 714 was big enough for a 3-story parking garage “but together with a big hotel and “you can bet the hotel will have priority for the parking.”

As for the main disagreement amongst the candidates — the sewer project — Headding is in full favor of the City’s project, which he has supported and voted for every time. “It comes down to debt service,” Headding said. He said the project would lose a low interest, $69 million EPA loan, if it dropped the water-recycling portion. 

Interest is almost half the costs, he said, adding that he believes more savings could be found with the project.

Weiss appeared somewhat resigned, saying that in large part the City Council has already made the decisions. He has concerns about potential cost overruns and about running pipes down Quintana Road and disrupting the businesses along that street, of which his electronics store is among them. 

Heller said, “I am against this project as currently conceived.” He said there are red flags waving everywhere. For example, he said the process is out of synch. They’re building 3 miles out and up hill without even knowing the cost of the needed lift station. He also criticized the numerous cost estimates that have come out. “This project never has had a budget.”

Winholtz too does not support the plant at the South Bay Boulevard site. She was on the Council in 2003 when the first project was begun. This second project moves it away from the Coast to a place where now if there is a spill it could go directly into the estuary.

Addis said, “I don’t want Morro Bay to become Los Osos and that she was committed to the current project. “A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush,” she said. “I’m committed to that.”

Barron said the sewer has been a long time coming. “Not everyone is going to like where it goes,” he said. “Healing the community is important to me.”

Goldman too said she supports the current plan, which the City estimates at $126 million or $41 per month per customer on top of the regular charges for water and sewer service and usage.

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