Ventura's sales tax measure leaves locals divided over city funding practices
By Paul Sisolak 10/15/2009
In a busy and sometimes contentious election season encompassing a 15-person City Council race and arguments over building height limits and superstores, perhaps no other issue has been more divisive in Ventura than a proposed sales tax increase on ballots next month.
Calling for a half-percent jump — from 8.25 percent to 8.75 percent — supporters of Measure A say that the temporary, four-year rise in the city’s local sales tax is imperative if some city-funded services are to continue, and to prevent further cuts to public sector jobs and Ventura’s bleeding coffers.
Taking a “no new taxes” position, those opposed to Measure A opine that the timing is wrong, and that city officials should live within their means after years of wasteful and questionable spending practices.
From the get-go, those in the pro-Measure A camp say the estimated $8 million in annual revenues from the sales tax is only a minor offset to the one thing beyond the city’s control: state cuts from Sacramento.
“It’s a bitter pill, but we need to do it. … The state is stealing $4 million a year,” says Brian Leshon, communications chairman for the Democratic Club of Ventura.
Proponents maintain that the first benefit of the initiative is that under law, gains from Measure A can’t be commandeered by the state.
“This is a tax paid within the city and kept within the city,” Leshon adds.
Jay Panzica, the city’s chief financial officer, says that key services such as public safety and public works improvements have suffered from a poor economy and the aforementioned cuts.
“We’re operating at a lower level right now. The choice would be, ‘Do you like the level we’re at now, or do you want to pay more and get better service?’ ” Panzica says.
The city’s general fund for fiscal year 2009-2010 is $85 million, Panzica said. Of it, $11 million has been cut, 42 staff positions were cut, with a 5 percent pay cut for the ones who remain at Ventura City Hall, according to official arguments for Measure A.
The city’s spending plan maps out 40 percent of the tax hike’s gains for the Ventura Police Department, particularly staffing, where at least four officers are being paid with reserve money because the city cannot afford their salaries, says John Snowling, Measure A endorser and president of the Police Officers Association.
“We’ve been understaffed for a long time. A city our size should have at least 140 officers,” Snowling said. “All the violent crime we’ve had this year, it’s my opinion you can’t afford to lose any more.”
Portions of the public safety allotment of Measure A, according to the spending plan, are earmarked for neighborhood watch, gang suppression and the fire department. City hall numbers estimate that police and fire response times stand to improve by 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Half of Measure A revenues are expected to fund public works matters: street, pothole and sidewalk repairs, beach and park cleanups, and the restoration of the city’s tree trimming cycle to every four to five years.
Under Measure A, 10 percent of sales tax gains are poised to save the Wright Library on Day Road.
Elements of the Measure A spending plan, says Panzica, are not requirements, just recommended priorities.
Unlike Oxnard’s Measure E, where a two-thirds majority is needed to win because the proposed parcel tax measure is geared exclusively to funding needs of local schools, Measure A requires a simple majority. If it passes, Measure A money goes into the city of Ventura’s general fund and can legally be spent on anything city officials want.
People not in favor of the sales tax hike believe they can’t trust the City Council to spending Measure A money as specified in the plan.
Citing poor city management as the root cause of recent increases to water rates, public employee retirement benefits and the implementation of the infamous 911 fee, there’s no reason to believe Measure A revenue won’t be similarly misused, according to opponents.
“This spending plan is a non-binding, advisory directive,” says Ventura County Taxpayers Association President Don Facciano. “They (City Council) say they know where they’re going to put it, but it doesn’t mean they can’t change it.”
“The problem is if they spend it for the same reasons as over the past five years,” says Bob McCord, a Ventura attorney. “What have you done historically to make me have confidence in you in the future?”
McCord was one of four members of an ad-hoc Blue Ribbon Committee appointed by the city to research Measure A, who opposed the sales tax increase. Bob Alviani is another.
“There are people who will vote for this on the mere premise that it will help the Wright Library, but there’s no guarantee it will,” Alviani says.
Former Ventura Mayor Clifton Tingstrom says the City Council should explore other alternatives before imposing a sales tax. He signed off on the official argument against Measure A, which states that the city has more than $172 million in combined investment and uncommitted reserves that it could use in place of more taxes.
Tingstrom, who believes Measure A favors the public sector over the private, thinks the half-percent increase isn’t enough of a revenue generator to bring the income that could come from bringing new private businesses to Ventura.
“Our main complaint is, the council is not using their heads,” he said. “You just can’t keep spending and figure when the economy is going down, you lay off the private sector. The ones who create a profit are from the private sector. It’s called capitalism.”
Before Measure A’s 2014 sunset date, a state-imposed, 1-percent sales tax increase will expire in June 2011, effectively establishing the sales tax rates of Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme to 7.75 percent. The latter two cities previously raised their tax rates a half percent.