Calif. town officials back half-percent sales to fix public safety funding woes
If passed, the special tax is projected to generate roughly $10 million yearly in restricted general fund dollars to bolster public safety services
By Shea Johnson
VICTORVILLE, Calif. — Faced with rising contract costs and inadequate revenues, city officials unanimously backed a proposed half-percent sales tax Tuesday evening to resolve the expected shortfall in long-term public safety funding.
If passed, the special tax — which appears likely to go to voters in a November special election — is projected to generate roughly $10 million yearly in restricted general fund dollars to bolster fire and police services based on the city's current sales tax figures, according to City Manager Doug Robertson.
Robertson said the significant revenue boost could mean opening San Bernardino County Fire Station 315, which was built in 2008 on Eucalyptus Street but never fully staffed, adding nine firefighters and at least 10 Sheriff's deputies, all the while setting some extra money aside.
The Council voted 4-0 to direct staff to prepare the resolution, which must be submitted to county election officials by Aug. 11. The tax, which would add to the city's current 7.75 percent sales tax rate, would require a two-thirds majority by voters to pass.
"To me, it's the most sensible way to create the revenues we need," Councilman Jim Kennedy said.
Momentum for the sales tax emerged quickly during Tuesday's special meeting — one of two options presented to the dais. The other, a parcel tax, was universally scrapped behind the thinking that burdening only property owners was unfair. Additionally, a sales tax would ensure that the steady stream of out-of-town motorists traveling Interstate 15 also would contribute, officials said.
Food and medicine would not be subject to the tax, according to Robertson.
Officials appear to be broaching the tax cautiously, seemingly aware of the slim margin of error in presenting it to voters. On one hand, regional voters already embraced Measure I, the county's half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, in 1989 and overwhelmingly again in 2004.
But voters in Victorville, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Cox noted, would need to be assured that money collected by the public safety tax would be spent only on public safety.
"I'm of the opinion based on what I've been told," he said, "if we don't give the public that assurance, it's destined to fail."
Robertson said legally the city could not spend the tax revenue anywhere other than for services provided by San Bernardino County Fire or the Sheriff's Department. The actual allocation each year would be decided during routine budget sessions, he said.
Cox also urged fellow Council members to leave no questions unasked as city staff work to develop the required analysis and documentation for the tax resolution, as a splintered Council — "because we all have a constituency" — could pose a threat to the tax's passage.
An unanimous vote Tuesday — with Councilman Eric Negrete forced to leave the meeting early for apparent personal reasons — would appear to show, at least early on, signs of that united front.
Tax conversations come as an off-shoot of talks that have taken place over the past six months about the city's contract with County Fire. Officials are examining options for its fire services, although this was not addressed Tuesday.
Officials have said — even amid modest growth — that city revenue ultimately won't be able to catch up to rising costs in both its fire and police contracts nor to address several needed equipment upgrades in the queue.
For context, the County Fire contract represents roughly 90 percent of projected property tax revenue — a share the city has warned is "unsustainable" — and the Sheriff's contract will have increased by 300 percent between 2001 and 2020.
"If we don't see an increase in some sort of tax, what's going to happen is," Negrete said, "our revenues ... cannot keep up with all of the things that we have to pay for."
Anticipated population growth is also a major consideration, he added.
If the tax measure is shot down, Kennedy said the city would be forced to annex into County Fire's Service Zone FP-5, which would improve services but also be accompanied by a $153 special tax on nearly 38,000 parcels in the city.
The city isn't alone in scrambling to ensure the long-term health of its public safety services; in April, the Barstow City Council took the last step needed to place a sales tax measure on the November ballot in an effort to keep solvent its city Fire Department.
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