Council: Potentially asking voters
to approve a tax a taxing issue

May 09, 2014
Santa Paula News

The City Council found that potentially asking voters to approve a tax was itself a taxing issue that led them to ask for more study on various measures to generate revenues to beef up public safety and fix roads.

At the Monday meeting the issue split the council and led to some sharp words about the proposed tax, which if approved would appear on the November ballot and make Santa Paula’s sales tax the highest in Ventura County.

Vice Mayor Jim Tovias had initially broached the tax and at the May 5 meeting argued in favor of a proposed 1 percent hike in the sales tax to split 60-40 between police needs and road improvements.

“I’m definitely an anti-tax person,” said Tovias but it would be up to local voters to make the decision for city improvement.

Tovias estimated such a tax increase would bring about $1.6 million in new annual revenue to the city and he proposed that the ballot initiative be for a special tax to ensure targeted spending.

A special tax requires a two-third margin of voter approval; a general tax requires a simple majority but allocations cannot be guaranteed.

With 28 sworn police officers, five rookies still in field training, the city is currently “tremendously understaffed with police,” Tovias told fellow council members, adding that “Our primary function is to make sure the citizens of this community feel safe... unfortunately, that is not the case.”

The number of sworn officers has also had its ups and downs with a high of 34 authorized positions and more than 30 officers hired in 2009 to 28 authorized positions with only 20-full time officers on duty last year.  The number of Reserve Officers also diminished from a high of 30 Reserves in recent years down to the more recent 20. The department is advertising for two more officers that through a grant would bring the number of sworn officers to 30.

As the number of officers fell the crime rate rose: Santa Paula had eight homicides since May 2013; in the previous nine years, from 2003 to 2012, there were eight total homicides, averaging less than one a year.

Public speaker Tim Hicks said he approved the idea of a 1 percent specific tax but “I do believe fire should be included in there... “ 

SPFD Firefighter Nick Bacigalupo and VCFFA steward agreed, telling the council that five firefighters hired under the federal SAFER grant-”About one-third of the department”-would be lost without funding. 

He noted that if “Not for the efficiency and expertise of the firefighters,” the recent strip mall fire that heavily damaged Dominos Pizza and The Medicine Shoppe could have decimated the entire complex.

Even if the city is able to extend the SAFER grant there would be a four-month need for city funding to retain positions until the grant kicked back in.

Said Bacigalupo, “Any new tax measure must contain funding,” for SPFD.

After more discussion Councilman Bob Gonzales asked about other issues to a measure including campaign leadership.

Tovias said he has talked to people about heading a campaign but, “I would actually be taking a leadership role,” as with the successful Adams Canyon measure, passed before he was elected to council when he also served as Gonzales campaign manager.

“If nobody stepped up,” he added, “I would take the lead on this,” 

When asked for specifics on spending Tovias said the “Purpose tonight” centered on moving the issue forward with adoption, and in June spending particulars for a 60-40 police and roads initiative would be a “part of the equation, but fire no.

“... there is a timeline,” he noted, that must be met for ballot placement.

Councilman Martin Hernandez said he does not think there is public support for a 1 percent sales tax increase and the matter seemed to be rushed.

Although he understands and appreciates the issues, “I’m really concerned with the lack of detail at this point,” as well as making Santa Paula’s sales tax the highest in the county if it went to 8 percent.

Hernandez said only two cities have an 8 percent tax but others are the same as Santa Paula’s sales tax of 7.5 percent.

With the still recovering economy, number of lower income households in the city and the “uncertainty of our water rates,” and the increase of same he said “I’m worried about the viability” of such a measure.

Hernandez also questioned excluding fire from benefiting from a sales tax increase but including streets.

A cost analysis must be done, a document Hernandez said the council is still waiting for outlining the Limoneira police grant that the city will match over a three-year period for a combined $1.5 million.

“We have no spending plan for that grant... I need figures in front of me before I make any decisions,” on fiduciary issues.

Hernandez said there is a “sense of mistrust of government,” with citizens asking “How we dare ask for a tax increase when we still can’t give them answers on the water rates? ‘All I keep hearing is it’s coming, it’s coming’ minimizing their trust.”

Hernandez would consider a 1/2 percent sales tax increase but said he would not “slap fire in the face,” and revenue would have to be split equally with police and fire.

Councilman Ralph Fernandez was also concerned that an 8.5 percent sales tax could lead to a loss of local business, especially when it comes to big-ticket items such as automobiles.

Fernandez said what he would “hate to see happen is our businesses say, ‘You’re going to drive me out of business,’ “ as shoppers went out of town for more and more purchases that could overcome any increase in the basic rate.

He noted that although he believes there is support for a tax perhaps the city should consider a property tax rather than a sales tax.

He also mentioned sunset clauses but said a short-term end to a property tax might miss new growth as “I don’t think Limoneira is going to come as early as we think it is,” with development of their East Area 1 and 2 plans.

Tovias gave a final pitch noting crime is keeping people away from Santa Paula, which with support could become the safest city in the county.

“To delay this is doing a injustice to the citizens... if they ignore,” the needs it is their decision.

Tovias said, “This is bigger than all of us, let them make the call.”

Mayor Rick Cook said he appreciated the issue but “We can’t sit up here and scare people,” as homicide is high but other crime is low.

He noted some officers might now have to be pulled from special units and placed back on patrol because of neighborhood needs.

Tovias’ proposed tax would fall way short of fixing streets and although Cook said he would also support adding fire to a 1/2 percent special tax.

But either way Cook said that based on past failed public safety tax measures, “People will tell you they support you but I guarantee when they go in that booth,” they will not support a tax.

Tovias motion to move his suggested measure only garnered support from Gonzales and failed 3-2.

After more wrangling the council voted to have city staff prepare a report detailing how much revenue might be raised with a parcel tax compared with a sales tax as well as data on how much revenue would be generated through a sales tax increase of 1 percent and 1/2 percent.

Although they asked that the report be returned May 19 it might not be completed until the June 2 meeting.

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