Sales tax measure for public safety,
roads contentious for Council

May 23, 2014
Santa Paula News

Santa Paula voters will be asked to approve a 1 percent sales tax after a majority of the City Council opted to put the special tax to benefit public safety and roads on the November 4 ballot.

If passed by voters the measure would create an account to hold an estimated $1.62-million for specified spending.

The measure is still being finalized but it would direct 50 percent of added sales tax revenues-an estimated $820,000 annually-to police to beef up services; the fire department and road needs would equally split the remaining revenue to garner an estimated $410,000 each annually to improve fire services and fix streets. 

As a special tax spelling out expenditures it would require the approval of two-thirds of voters. 

Santa Paula’s sales tax is presently 7.5 percent; if the 1 percent increase passes the muster of the super majority of voters the city’s new 8.5 percent sales tax would be the highest in the county.

The 4-1 vote for the proposal came after the council heard from public speakers and debated tax plans including a parcel tax quickly dismissed by the council.

One proposal called for giving the Santa Paula Police and Fire departments each 40 percent of the additional revenue from the proposed tax and the remaining 20 percent to street maintenance.

One councilmember suggested that the tax  be distributed based on the present General Fund percentage split: 41 percent for police and 19 percent for fire and none for streets.

The council approved the proposal for 50 percent of the additional revenues to go toward the police agency, 25 percent to firefighting and 25 percent to street maintenance, but not without much at times cantankerous discussion and a split that saw Mayor Rick Cook casting the only no vote.

Cook said the fire department should receive more funding and he also questioned remarks leading up to the vote made by Vice Mayor Jim Tovias-who asked if the use of the tax revenue could be charged or reviewed if city finances improved-and City Manager Jaime Fontes.

City Attorney John Cotti told Tovias a sunset clause is not a review period but rather asks voters to again approve a measure after a ballot-designated period of time elapses.

When Councilman Bob Gonzales asked Fontes how a 1 percent sales tax increase would affect the city’s General Fund budget, Fontes said the added revenue would have a “soothing effect on the needs of the budget to provide for other departments other than the ones mentioned tonight. There is necessarily other funding available because you commit a new source of revenue for very specific purposes.”

Fontes noted that such purposes would be crafted by the city attorney through “several procedural resolutions involving the valid arguments... that augments the city’s abilities to provide for other departments and other services.”

Cook said he would not support the measure if used to augment city budgets other than police and fire and he urged that the city consider suing the state for withheld payments that fund road improvements.

Public speakers were vocal about the need for more police: Ronda McKaig noted she has asked the council in the past what plans they have for improving public safety and “If you’re not doing anything we have the right to know that too... “

The “biggest issue” facing Santa Paulans said Gabrielle Muratori is “The lack of leadership and the negativity and pessimism in our community,” that under-staffed public safety and underpays officers.

“Your job,” is to correct the situation as “What we need now is a safer city... “

Tax supporter Rodney Cobos told the council that it can “cultivate an environment” of safety that promotes community growth and jobs for local families.

Cobos said the latter was an issue he asked the council about in 2008 when a contractor built the privately owned wastewater treatment plant with out of state employees: “We know,” that with unemployment “crime goes up,” and increased crime will keep employers away.

With the tax, said Cobos, “I know this cost will be spread among all residents,” those with a stake in the community.

Representatives of police and fire also spoke: Firefighter Nick Bacigalupo said much of what was being said about police and their community service also applies to firefighters.

“Every time there is a stabbing or a shooting,” someone requires emergency medical treatment provided by firefighter EMTs.

“Public safety is an all compassing thing, whatever makes peoples’ lives better,” said Bacigalupo, must be supported.

Santa Paula Police Officers Association (SPPOA) President Officer Shane Norwood said that although SPPD staff is “grossly underpaid” by more than 45 percent compared to the rest of the county, even “With all the violence and extremely low staffing we have done a phenomenal job... but if we’re not put on par with other agencies,” five new officers in training could leave the SPPD, “Putting us right back to square one.”

Norwood said the SPPOA “Stands with our fire brothers,” and want grant funded fire positions retained, as “this is not a competition” but rather an attempt to make it better for the community.

During council discussions Cook noted his dislike of grants that soon burden cities with added expense or the risk of lay-offs; Councilman Ralph Fernandez said he feared if the council could not agree on a measure it would be hard to expect the public too.

Gonzales, the city’s former police chief, said “I had my head handed to me on a platter,” during past measures to boost public safety where citizens said they supported such increases but voted against them.

Several council members noted that hiring more officers would not end violence and Cook said several business owners expressed fears a tax would drive shoppers out of town. 

Councilman Martin Hernandez said he supported more funding for public safety but questioned what level of adequate public safety would be the “benchmark... “

Hernandez cited various studies about numbers of per capita officers and made revenue comparisons to other cities, comments that Tovias snapped were “analysis paralysis” and delaying a vote.

“I don’t care about other cities, I care about Santa Paula,” and Tovias said the proposed tax was “equitable” and affordable, even for the extra penny added on to each dollar the poor pay for a cell phone and fast-food hamburger.

And Tovias noted, “Once money is allocated for police, it makes sense there would be more money in the General Fund for everybody, so everybody would benefit.”

The council will consider the ballot language at the June 2 meeting; the initiative must be submitted to the county for ballot placement by June 30.

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