It’s time to defund the SLO Chamber of Commerce

October 25, 2020
T. Keith Gurnee

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.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Bad policy (restricting supply) > leads to inflation of housing costs > primarily service-based workforce can no longer afford to live here > business owners can’t find labor, can’t deliver consistent services > business fails > other businesses don’t move in because of aforementioned problems > empty store fonts. How hard is this for you people?!

This is some boomer-tier nonsense if I’ve ever heard it, stuck in the 70’s and the policies suggested are completely antithetical to what is overwhelmingly agreed to be urban planning best-practice. Advocating for more parking??? Really??? Try reading Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking,” William Fulton’s “The Reluctant Metropolis,” Conor Dougherty’s “Golden Gates,” Alain Bertaud’s “Order Without Design,” and give me these same economic development arguments. The reason we have rampant homelessness and exorbitant housing costs is a direct result of five decades of failed policies that originated during Mr. Gurnee’s prime professional years. (I.e. CEQA, Prop 13 – which made building low cost housing no longer profitable for developers, limited local streams of revenue [hence all your city fees!], and effectively subsidized existing homeowner’s taxes at the expense of future buyers.)

– A pissed off and educated millennial

Your comments show both your youth and your ignorance of how things came to be.

The problem of homelessness has more to do with an under funded mental health system than a lack of economic opportunity. In October 1963 President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law, it was the last piece of legislation he signed before his assassination. The bill intended on replacing mental institutions where mentally ill people were “warehoused” with 1,500 community mental health centers funded by the federal government. Only half of these centers were ever built and none was ever fully funded. Kennedy was killed and every subsequent President had their own agenda and vision for America. The responsibility for providing mental health services fell to the states and the counties.

Because of the closing of institutions and the lack of funding for local services we began to see the issue of homelessness appear back in the 70’s in many urban areas. The issue has continued to grow and now we have homeless (who enjoy temperate weather as much as millionaires do) in our county who can’t overcome their severe mental illness. The result of failed policy? Perhaps, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the intention in 1963 was to integrate institutionalized people into society by making them viable. The idea didn’t fail because of a lack of affordable housing or too many parking spaces for automobiles.

Exorbitant housing costs in California is nothing new for coastal cities. It is in fact why, long before you were a twinkle in your Daddy’s eye, voters passed proposition 13. People who had lived in a community their whole lives were being forced out as property values around them increased due to the desirability of the area. Prop 13 protected the middle class who could not afford skyrocketing property taxes. If it was repealed you wouldn’t see property values drop to the levels where a barista at Starbucks could buy a home in SLO. What you would see are retired people and families having to sell out to some transplanted millionaire who can afford both SLO prices and the property tax bill. When a house is sold the property is reassessed and the new property tax bill reflects the current value, so don’t worry as the Boomers make way for you to run things by dying off the income from property tax will go up.

As far as affordable housing not being profitable for developers, we come back to desirability of an area. Unless the federal government fund programs where the developer buys the land and the government buys the materials, thus setting a cap on what a house can be sold for (such programs existed in the 1950’s) I don’t see new homes in our area ever being “affordable.”

It’s easy to say Prop 13 is the source of our housing crisis and I expect it will be repealed by clueless have nots who all want to live in Dana Point, Santa Barbara or SLO, instead of Bakersfield, Fresno or Modesto, but it isn’t the cause of the problem.

I have no doubt that when the Boomers have shed their mortal coils and your enlightened generation takes the reins of power, the world will be all rainbows and unicorns. Everyone will own their own 700 sq ft home, made from sea train containers stacked four high, they will ride their bicycles to do their daily shopping at the organic food co-op and when they sit down at Kreuzberg with their laptop and $5 cup of coffee they will say, “Man I’m doing alright!”