Editorial: Basic services must come first

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Most county and city residents have no say on a proposal to form
a new property-based improvement district downtown, so their 11
percent stake in the affected properties should not count toward
the necessary interest level needed to get it on the ballot.
Most county and city residents have no say on a proposal to form a new property-based improvement district downtown, so their 11 percent stake in the affected properties should not count toward the necessary interest level needed to get it on the ballot.

The Hollister Downtown Association since last spring has pushed to form the district, called a PBID and common in other cities. Their message is that Hollister has to raise money in order to plan and fund improvements envisioned in the Downtown Strategy Plan put together by an outside consultant a few years back, and paid for in large part by the city and area businesses.

HDA officials have estimated the PBID’s first-year budget at a relatively modest $125,000, while its initial run would last for five years.

While both San Benito County and Hollister’s elected officials took the fiscally responsible tack just seven months ago – by informing the HDA the public properties in the proposed district would not tip the scale in favor of an overall approval – the new board last week reversed its prior stance and OK’d the county’s 5 percent allotment toward the milestone. HDA officials noted it means they have 45 percent of the necessary 50 percent to spur a mail-in election, and it only makes us wonder whether city council members might lower their guards next. It also leaves the question: Why not let the private sector decide on private sector redevelopment? As of now, without the city and county’s allocations, there is less than a majority of support among other property owners.

As far as timing goes, it comes on the heels of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate all 400 or so redevelopment agencies in California. Hollister’s RDA funds much of the current downtown improvements, as well as a large portion of the HDA budget.

Frankly, the proposition is a risk, and this is no time for any financial risk taking with use of taxpayers’ dollars. It is, indeed, a new tax. Only with this tax – or levy or fee, or whatever pleasant-sounding word you want to call it – there isn’t a cut-and-dry service in return. There is merely a roll of the dice that may or may not produce a revenue upside many years from now.

Considering the county and city’s coffers are depleting at astounding rates, is it really an appropriate time to hit the craps tables with such limited taxpayer funds? Perhaps we wrongly surmised that locally elected officials generally opposed gambling after shunning casino developers six years ago, but maybe that stance has changed, too. Or maybe they’d prefer a more palatable comparison, such as a state-run lottery.

And while budget trends are dire – the city trends toward a completely empty reserve fund in just two or three years, while the county isn’t far behind – current funding levels already neglect the performance of many basic services. If you can’t fix the potholes, for instance, there shouldn’t be a sniff of consideration for such new investments. Somebody should remind county officials that we have the worst roads in the region, or city leaders that the residential side streets in Hollister have more craters than the Moon.

At some point, local leaders have to realize that the downtown is not manifestly destined for jewel status. Public agencies and businesses over the past several decades have poured in thousands upon thousands of dollars into its revitalization. There have been an array of improvements made over the years to spruce up downtown, and many have been worthwhile. Based on recent history, though, we find it hard to believe that moderate enhancements can possibly be the main driver in any prospective economic turnaround for the downtown area. For the most part, in the absence of a marketable theme that ties merchants together, anchor stores and restaurants are the necessary magnets in a successful shopping experience, indoors or outdoors. Without their presence – and Hollister’s downtown lacks a primary draw – small and incremental improvements won’t make a difference in the short term.

Even city officials have widely, yet quietly, acknowledged and encouraged growth centers for other areas – such as along the Highway 25 bypass, and at Airline Highway’s intersection with Tres Pinos Road where big retailers do business.

Any possible return on investment for the county or city would depend on larger-scale endeavors that neither the PBID nor the local government can afford, at least in the coming few years. With such dire budget outlooks ahead, each and every dollar is precious. Adding this additional expense simply doesn’t add up.

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