“The worst enemy of this effort IS apathy.”
Long-time Los Osos resident Gary Freiberg is intelligent, articulate, and doesn’t suffer fools or stereotypes lightly. He has written Viewpoints in local media, appeared on radio talk shows like “Dave Congalton,” and braved the arrows of pro-sewer extremists in the media and on the blogs. When he was a guest on the “Dave Congalton Show” and a caller accused Gary of potentially holding up the sewer, Gary didn’t waste anytime calling him “selfish.” Gary is not a technocrat and doesn’t pretend to be one. He is a retired financial adviser and economist who understands his community better than the politicians, and his specialty is talking dollars and sense. Gary recently launched an online petition to stop the $189 million Los Osos Wastewater Project for 5,000 homes cold in its tracks. The petition, which has an end-of-April deadline, has created a stir in Los Osos for its bold, innovative attempt to send local, state and national government the message that “other solutions are less expensive, if a solution is needed at all.” The ROCK asked Gary to explain the petition and why it is important for residents and citizens to stop the sewer and sign the petition. Following is The ROCK Q&A with Gary Freiberg:
Rock: To bring readers up to date, explain in a nutshell what your petition is all about, when and why you started it, and what your goal is. How has the petition been received so far?
Gary Freiberg: The Change.org petition I posted is to create awareness and generate discussion in the public and with 16 decision-makers of the economic concerns and consequences in San Luis Obispo County from the most expensive per capita sewer in the US, the $190 million Los Osos Sewer. An emailed copy of the online signed petition goes to the 16 officials including the five members of the Board of Supervisors, the Coastal Commission, the State Water Board, Lois Capps and others. I started the petition found on Change.org by typing “Los Osos sewer” in the search bar on January 27th hoping to speak to the humanity in one or more of the decision-makers in the various departments involved in the sewer decisions, if not the humanity then at least awareness of the economic consequences in our County from almost 5,000 households having to adjust their spending in order to pay the $250-$300 a month sewer assessment. With no paid promotion there are over 270 petition signatures. As with any issue, and certainly with the sewer issue, there are two opinions of the petition. The end date is April 27th for the listing, that will be when the verdict of how the petition was received will be final.
Your petition aims to stop the sewer. Do you think that has alarmed some people who would sign if you recognized the reality that the sewer is coming? Does the petition address the fears of rising costs that stopping the sewer stirs in some?
This proposed sewer does need to be stopped, period. Until the first shovel is dug, this proposed sewer is not a reality. The petition does not address the fears of rising costs as it is about economic consequence if this proposal is built. It is not predicated on the belief THIS sewer proposal is the only solution and it will get more expensive so must be built now. Other solutions are less expensive, if a solution is needed at all. The Tribune and New Times editorials have swayed public opinion with their ridicule of any dissonance in Los Osos. The need for media to have access to the power players creates a rule; if you want to talk with us, support us, otherwise, you don’t get in. Especially the Tribune — Stephanie Finucane, Sandra Duerr, Bruce Ray — their bias is practically criminal. Too many people take their news as gospel; it’s not, it’s collaboration between the reported and reporter.
Does your petition advocate homeowners to STOP THE SEWER, STOP THIS SEWER or STOP ANY SEWER? Though the “STOP” part of the petition is clear, there are no alternatives presented to fill the void after stopping the project. Could this also make some people hesitant to sign? Do you offer any middle ground, alternatives or solutions beyond stopping the project cold?
I am not a technical salt-water-intrusion-nitrate-kind of guy so I will not get muddled in that debate. However, I do know the group [Los Osos Sustainability Group]that is involved with that aspect has been belittled and mocked by the Tribune and others when they are a group of intelligent, committed and qualified people. There are individuals in the history of the Los Osos Battle of the Sewer who created an image that those against the sewer are wackos and whiners, but again, that’s the image assigned in the press. It truly is sad because so many families, individuals and retirees are being forced into financial instability because of political bullying and media manipulation. These residents are not extremist “Sewer Nuts,” using the term the New Times coined. How something that is going to hurt businesses, jobs and tax revenues to schools and public services programs be supported and those against so diminished is beyond my ability to answer. So yes, stop this sewer, and if there is to be one, have it be one that keeps families and retirees in their homes, preserves jobs and businesses in San Luis Obispo County and stabilizes revenues to county schools and public services.
The petition currently has a little over 270 signatures and the deadline to sign is the end of April. Since your petition is Internet based, what are you doing for outreach on the street to gather signatures of homeowners who are not Internet savvy? Are you tabling or communicating with residents through other means? How?
There are several avenues remaining to broaden public awareness. For example, thank you for this interview. As a “one man band” I can do a lot, but there are limitations. Up until now I haven’t spent any money to promote the petition. Having an Internet-based petition has many benefits; it’s limitation is for those who are not savvy a potential signature is lost. I don’t think that percentage outweighs the ability to reach people in the comfort of their own home with the additional ability to email or Facebook the petition link and multiply their signature. I believe thousands of signatures from the Internet is not unrealistic.
The label “sewer nut” has been used to diminish critics of the wastewater project. “Sewer nuts” have been described as extremists, “no-sewer” and obstructionists. Do you believe the use of these labels by the Tribune and promoters of the $189 million project to advance the project is an appropriate response to your cause? Are you concerned that you and others may be unable to shed the “sewer nut” stereotype imposed by the County on anyone criticizing the project?
It’s a trait of mankind for those who live together to form separate camps. The Tribune and New Times have inflamed the sewer issue with their slanted coverage. To show their disdain for the “pugnacious,” as Stephanie Finucane recently said of the Los Osos “anti-sewerites,” both publications have made up words because they couldn’t dig deep enough in their thesaurus to find appropriate adjectives to adequately express how screwed up they think these Los Osos people are. Since I haven’t been part of any group it is only since I posted the petition that I have had discussions and seen many residents reaction to the sewer. Ideology in a society can be led, formed by those who have the pulpit. The local media has that pulpit and has created the reality too many people have. Ironically, if they get their wish two things happen: Residents realize they have a huge bill every month, who those now in favor are stomping to pay that three hundred bucks a month, and the Tribune discovers that some of the businesses that used to advertise are no longer in business or others can’t afford the extra expense.
You’ve estimated an annual $10 million of Los Osos resident spending will be lost to the local economy due to these dollars being redirected to paying the monthly tax assessment for an overpriced sewer. Since you started the petition, has the County addressed or challenged your estimate? If not, why do you think they’ve chosen to dismiss it? Does their overall culture of silence regarding the project play any part?
Let’s first address what the $10 million is, where the money comes from. The county’s $10 million estimate is forecasting how much consumer spending in our county will be lost annually from Los Osos residents’ budgeting, “re-directing” as they call it, their discretionary spending for things like going out to dinner, shopping, entertainment to pay their sewer assessments. The $10 million estimate is San Luis Obispo County’s conservative estimate. There’s no challenge to the figure because it’s their own. What it doesn’t include is the multiplier effect. The range is between 1.5 and 1.9 how many times a dollar “turns over” in our county. In example, an employee gets paid, goes out to eat. Restaurant gets paid, who pays employee who also got our tip. They go shopping. Store owner gets paid. And so on. So the $10 million has a $15 to $19 million a year economic consequence in our county for the next 30 to 40 years. That means jobs, businesses, tax revenues to schools and public services, the ripple effect impacts thousands of peoples lives for a long time.
I don’t know if there is a code of silence but I think the Board of Supervisors would discuss their sex lives before they’d talked about the economic consequences of their actions.
Many homeowners say, “I’ve had enough. We’ve waited decades to have this sewer built. No more waiting.” Exasperation has been building for 30 years. What do you say to those who followed the project through 2011, and after votes, permits and funding are lined up, see you as Johnny-come-lately who missed the opportunity to do something when it really could have mattered?
I have learned many people do feel they have had enough. It’s more than unfortunate, it’s shocking but understandable. But to give up, to give in, to support a project that is going to change parent’s financial stability and how that affects kids and everyday life for most of the 5,000 households paying the assessment, that’s difficult to understand. I believe one day many will regret their support. As for my timing, at one time the monthly assessment was affordable, the debate issues were based on need, location and methodology. During the years the battle has been fought it has become more expensive to live in every respect. The two sides fighting each other have been so determined to win, the changed economics have been a secondary, if thought of at all concern. There’s not any time when either side would have stopped battling and agree the project has gotten too expensive for the average family and they both need to pivot. Until the first shovel is dug this is a proposal. The County has borrowed $22 million so far; they need to stop further borrowing and spending. There should be millions of dollars from the recently imposed tax assessment that was collected in January to pay down this debt. Continue the assessment until the debt is paid and start over. As impossible as that sounds, it’s not. If I didn’t believe there is a chance that with enough signatures one of the 16 receiving the petition would stop and ask the Board of Supervisors questions concerning the economic consequences and perhaps decide not to authorize more loans until the questions are answered, I wouldn’t make this effort. The Board of Supervisors hired someone from the USDA who had the contacts to arrange $80 million in loans from the agency — without that guy the loans wouldn’t have been made. The consequences of their actions will be felt long after they leave office if the proposed sewer is built. The last thing anyone connected to our local economy should think is game over in Los Osos, and do nothing. This is a County issue that residents outside of Los Osos for their own future job stability need to take about three minutes to read and sign the Change.org petition we’re discussing.
In a recent op-ed you wrote, “The worst enemy to this effort is apathy.” Given the wastewater project has already met project milestones and a successful Proposition 218 assessment vote before you started the petition, and homeowners had already been through the County’s painful “process” of disenfranchisement, is it possible at this point to make residents less apathetic? Do you see any danger in fostering false hope for homeowners at this late date?
My objective is not to create false hope, but to raise questions that the Board of Supervisors, Lois Capps or anyone else in the decision-making process should have asked but haven’t. The worst enemy of this effort IS apathy. Many see obstacles as walls, not hurdles. Because residents are fed up with the sewer project and have relented, I don’t believe the majority of Los Osos/Baywood Park residents know of the economic impact the sewer is forecast to have in our county and very possibly on their life. Many fog over when the sewer topic comes up because of being fed up. My effort is to spin the direction of the person who has thrown up their hands and wants the whole sewer thing over with. Who can relate to or care about nitrate levels when you can go to your tap and drink the water? What I hope residents and others can relate to is the County is going to dig deep into our pockets, and they don’t care how it affects you, your family or your business. We become less apathetic with things that affect us, otherwise, it’s someone else’s problem. Hopefully, more will see how the $190 million debt affects them and will take a few minutes to sign a petition in the convenience of their home.
Your petition is available on Change.org, a web site that allows people to create petitions and mobilize support online? Why did you select this as your primary method to send such an important community message to government? Could the petition backfire and its results be misused by the County as a referendum for the sewer validating their position — and against the majority of the community that can’t afford the sewer?
I chose Change.org after Bank of America changed their mind to charge a $5 a month debit-card fee when someone posted a petition on the Change.org site and got enough signatures to get BoA to back down. There’s three outcomes for the petition; ignored by all 16 receiving it, used by the county if not a lot of signatures, or be successful in increasing awareness of the economic consequences in San Luis Obispo County from the Los Osos sewer and force the Board of Supervisors to address the various economic issues, like how are they going to mitigate to business and jobs for the $10 million of lost consumer spending and how are they going to replace the lost tax revenues to school and public services programs? The upside potential is much greater than the downside because the Board doesn’t respect or recognize the economic issues anyway, so what’s to lose? They don’t deem the economic issues worthy of discussion. My greatest hope is for the petition to cause that discussion.
Do you believe the County’s assurances that they will provide assistance to low-income residents who experience economic hardship because of the sewer? And will County assistance even matter in making a real difference in allowing more homeowners to stay in Los Osos?
It is estimated 20% to 30% of Los Osos residents can not afford the increased sewer assessments. I don’t believe assistance to low-income people will benefit many. Los Osos is a solid middle-class community. Most households are between those who are low income and the well off. An extra $250 to $300 a month sewer bill will make a big difference to families, individuals and retirees. Those who can manage paying the assessments will cut spending elsewhere to budget for the expense. Again, that projection is $10 million a year of lost consumer spending for the next 30 to 40 years.
Based on your estimates, can you project, in your opinion, what the Los Osos community we know today will look like in five years? Or 10 years?
A lot of people saying, “Remember when you could see the bay from here?” or “Remember the trees that used to be there?” or “Remember Dave and Sue, wonder how they and the kids are doing, where did they move to again?” And what will the Board of Supervisors look like then? A lot different I hope.
The County says the assessment will be $166 a month, not $250 to $300 as you’ve written. Why do your figures differ?
The recent assessment implemented for the sewer is $780 a year, about $73 per month. The Board of Supervisors have borrowed $22 million. Am I to believe that with another $165 million mostly in loans to go the assessments will only go up another $93 a month? There’s also no allowing for cost overruns. A project as huge as $190 million will never come in as estimated. There’s no allowance for changes or the unexpected; if that happens and the cost goes above $190 million then Los Osos households are responsible. I believe saying $250 to $300 a month is too low as there are also hook-up costs, but going into too much detail generates the fog-over. The monthly costs will far exceed the $166 the county says it will. It’s easier for them to get acceptance and ridicule dissonance by saying the cost is lower than what it actually will be. This higher cost only magnifies the economic consequence to all of San Luis Obispo County.