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Funk vs. Moreno: All eyes are on SLO County's 5th District supervisor race this March, where two Atascadero elected officials face off 

With political roots in Atascadero City Hall, Mayor Heather Moreno and City Councilmember Susan Funk are vying for a seat at San Luis Obispo County's apex table.

click to enlarge LEVEL GROUND Though 5th District Supervisor candidates Susan Funk (left) and Heather Moreno (right) disagree about voter interest in partisan issues, the county's Election Management System shows a relatively balanced spread in the district between Republicans and Democrats. - COVER IMAGES COURTESY OF SUSAN FUNK AND HEATHER MORENO
  • Cover Images Courtesy Of Susan Funk And Heather Moreno
  • LEVEL GROUND Though 5th District Supervisor candidates Susan Funk (left) and Heather Moreno (right) disagree about voter interest in partisan issues, the county's Election Management System shows a relatively balanced spread in the district between Republicans and Democrats.

On March 5, constituents of the county's 5th District will vote between them for SLO County supervisor following three-term incumbent Debbie Arnold's decision not to run for reelection. The winning candidate will represent a district that now covers Atascadero, the California Valley, Garden Farms, Pozo, Santa Margarita, and parts of Templeton, SLO, and Cal Poly.

Politically, Republicans have a small advantage in the 5th District. According to the county's Election Management System, the district has 12,754 registered Republican voters and 11,627 registered Democrats.

With donors like the Paso Robles Democratic Club, 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg's PAC, state Senate District Director Kara Woodruff, and SLO City Councilmember Jan Marx, Funk currently holds the fundraising lead with a little more than $296,000 raised between January 2023 and 2024. Moreno's campaign raised approximately $256,000 over the same time period. Her donors include current Supervisor Arnold, SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson's PAC, SLO physician Rene Bravo, and the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast PAC.

Funk and Moreno both responded to New Times' questions about SLO County's hot-button issues:

New Times: SLO County faced multiple problems stemming from the issue of homelessness—the closed Oklahoma Avenue safe parking site, lawsuits from several homeless people, and a rush to figure out how to build shelters using time-strapped grants. What difference, if any, would you like to see/bring about in how the county has approached homelessness? Are there any elements you think the county is effectively carrying that you'd like to make more robust?

Moreno: After millions in taxpayer dollars and years of government bureaucracy, the problem continues to grow. I recommend a performance audit of the money spent to see what's working and what needs to change. We need coordination, communication, and a common concept. That takes leadership on the board willing to set direction across jurisdictions so that law enforcement, mental health practitioners, and nonprofit organizations are working together with the ultimate goal of getting people off the streets and into shelter or housing. We need up-to-date metrics on our unhoused population; better data on bed inventory, open/filled and what type; to manage density; and follow through to prevent a disastrous situation like Oklahoma. Compassion must be the core of how we solve homelessness. At the same time, we must hold those who break the law accountable, and I support advocating through the legislative platform for more tools to do so.

Funk: We can't stop trying to reduce homelessness even though it's hard work, and rents are up 29 percent since the pandemic. We need to integrate services into any shelter, event parking sites; set clear expectations with shelter residents and communicate with neighbors; counter NIMBY pressure with clear communication; involve people with lived homelessness experience in the planning so solutions work; and keep adding affordable housing. Consistent with the countywide plan, we need additional tiny homes like Cabins for Change, where dogs are welcome. We should continue expanding use of ECHO's 90-day service model that offers short-term stability, mutual support, and a hand-up out of homelessness. For accountability, we need to implement performance metrics using the new homeless management information system launching on March 4.

New Times: Supervisors dropped the ax on inclusionary housing. Would you like to see that come back, and are there any improvements you'd like to see if it did? What else would you do differently to pave the way for affordable housing in SLO County?

Moreno: I appreciate the intent of inclusionary housing, to provide monies to organizations that build low-income housing. The problem is that it adds to the cost of all other housing, trading one problem for another. The county has a 2 percent cap on housing growth every year, and never comes close to meeting it. Increased housing supply is the answer to affordability. We must streamline the permitting and zoning process and ensure we build more housing in areas with as much existing infrastructure as possible, like in and around our cities. Other opportunities include looking at county-owned land and partnering with nonprofits to build affordable housing, and private developers to build market-rate housing with a portion set aside as deed-restricted. We can also consider supportive policies for businesses that have excess land and want to build housing for their employees.

Funk: Our county is desperately short of modest, smaller homes and apartments that are affordable to working people and young people building careers. In order to meet state-provided targets for lower-income housing, SLO County needs more projects like Templeton Place II. These projects are financed with federal tax credits requiring local contributions of about $40,000 a unit. Deferring county impact fees on such projects would help, but it won't be enough. When large homes are built, new residents need services performed by people who live in smaller homes. Therefore, it's not unfair to ask builders of large homes to include some affordable units or contribute modestly to building smaller units, as long as the amount is reasonable. Adding a fee to short-term rentals for this purpose is another option worth considering. It's also essential to plan and zone for duplexes, condos, apartments, ADUs, and tiny homes on small lots.

New Times: Supervisors greenlit an independent redistricting commission in a 3-2 vote in January. Would you have changed anything in how they set up the commission? What do you feel about the security of elections in SLO County?

Moreno: We should always monitor and work to improve election integrity, safeguarding the right to vote, and ensuring confidence in our electoral process. This issue has generated a significant amount of misinformation. While there's always room for improvement, we absolutely have safe, secure elections in SLO County. Any redistricting process has inherent challenges. When humans are involved, bias exists. Still, we should strive for a nonpartisan process that follows the law. I'm concerned that leaving the decision solely to a group of individuals who are unelected and unanswerable to the people could pose a problem, similar to government bodies that make onerous rules for the people to follow but are unaccountable to those very people. I can envision a "third way," perhaps an independent commission that presents a number of legal map options for the elected officials to decide. I'm open to solutions that seek the best outcome for our communities.

Funk: Evidence shows that elections in SLO County are being conducted with security and integrity. The process is systematically audited and has recently proven highly accurate during two large recounts. The county clerk-recorder and her staff deserve active support from the Board of Supervisors for work that is vital to our democracy. Regarding the maps, my values are clear: Voters choose their leaders; leaders should not choose their voters. I opposed the gerrymandered Patten map used in 2022, which was so biased and disruptive that the League of Women Voters sued. As a supervisor, I'll fight for a map-making process that supervisors can't rig for their own advantage, no matter who's in control. I support an independent citizen redistricting commission, which will reduce potential bias and build public trust.

New Times: Supervisors began relaxing regulations in the cannabis ordinance last October to help recoup revenue that can pay for the Department of Cannabis enforcers, judges, and tax collectors. What are your thoughts on this approach?

Moreno: Cannabis is legal in California. The county needs to provide a streamlined permit process for cannabis businesses so they can get their business up and operating in a reasonable time frame. Right now, I understand it takes three to four years to get a permit approved and another year or two to get the business operational, and that is too long. It is simple: Fewer permits equals less tax revenue. Once a cannabis business is approved, there must be checks and balances to ensure the business is operating in compliance with their permit conditions and paying their taxes. If we don't support the legal cannabis businesses, the illegal cannabis operators will thrive. I would like the county to focus on providing more opportunities for cannabis processing facilities, ensuring we have adequate resources to process the cannabis grown in our county, rather than pushing forward with retail storefronts in the unincorporated areas.

Funk: When discussing cannabis policy, it helps to distinguish between retail and agricultural-type functions. Growing cannabis requires a lot of water, which is in short supply. Also, cannabis has effects including strong odors whose impact on neighbors and nearby crops must be considered. Cannabis as a "crop" also requires new processing facilities that could risk damaging rural communities due to industrial character, scale, and odors. The county's botched roll-out of legalized cannabis has made it difficult for cannabis growers, so there is room for improvement. However, I don't see any compelling community benefit from cannabis growth and manufacturing that would justify subsidizing this industry. Retail cannabis is a separate issue. It's neither a demon nor a savior. Still, one could probably find places in unincorporated communities where a small store selling cannabis products could be accommodated safely if those communities want it. The county could benefit modestly from additional revenues.

New Times: Current 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold continues to be vocal in her support of smaller farmers using more groundwater from the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. She helped pass an ordinance in 2022 (which was repealed in 2023) that allowed for a five-fold increase in what basin landowners could pump from their properties without restriction. Do you agree with this approach, and what plans do you have to tackle the overdraft problem?

Moreno: I agree with the premise that all property owners should have access to the water underlying their parcel and the right to put that water to beneficial use on their property. However, it must be done in a reasonable, equitable, and thoughtful manner. Regionally we must look to create new water sources including desalination and recycled water. Locally we should use every excess drop of allocated Nacimiento Water to recharge the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin and create more opportunities for water storage and recharge. Other prospects include raising the Salinas Dam and diverting the additional water to our northern communities or providing voluntary incentives to farmers to temporarily fallow their land in exchange for creating groundwater recharge basins. We must emphasize water conservation to our residents and support efforts by creating a county conservation rebate and incentives program funded through water offset requirements already in place for discretionary projects.

Funk: The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin has been in serious overdraft for years. Perversely, Debbie Arnold's plan would have allowed each "small user" to pump enough groundwater to grow the equivalent of 25 acres of grapes—not exactly a family vegetable plot. I disagree with Arnold's plan because it would have made the groundwater situation worse, not better. Failing to fix the problem of groundwater basin overdraft is not fair to family farmers or anyone else, including residents who depend on wells for safe drinking water. We need to be fact-based and fair. First, we need to get the basin moving toward sustainability, as envisioned in the basin's sustainability plan. That effort requires a balanced and thoughtful combination of new supply options for basin recharge or relief (e.g., testing options for a blend of recycled and Lake Nacimiento water), conservation measures (e.g., fallowing), and incentives for efficient water use. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

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