Rick Cole knew it wouldn’t be easy. Getting a two-thirds majority vote for a measure asking to raise taxes, as required by state law, is a major hurdle to clear. But just because he’s not necessarily surprised that Measure P6, an initiative looking to increase public safety funds by raising the city sales tax, was voted down on Nov. 7 doesn’t mean he’s not disappointed.
“We always recognized that it was going to be an uphill battle,” the Ventura City Manager says. “It’s a very tough environment for any tax measure, given that taxes were an issue at the federal and state level, and voters at the state level turned down four tax measures and approved five bond measures — five bonds that didn’t involve raising taxes. It’s fairly clear that there is a desire for government to do more, not a desire for citizens to pay more. Inevitably, we got caught up in that.”
The measure proposed raising sales tax in Ventura by one-quarter percent, which was estimated to generate approximately $4.3 million annually — money that would have been used to hire 14 new police officers and 11 firefighters, bolster anti-gang and anti–drug programs, purchase life support equipment for paramedics and improve response times. It was placed on the ballot in response to a public safety budget officials claim is not meeting current needs. As the city’s population has ballooned over the last decade-plus, emergency phone calls have more than doubled — from 40,000 in 1990 to 105,000 last year, according to Police Chief Pat Miller — while the number of police officers and firefighters has remained stagnant: 127 and 66, respectively. Response time has slowed, and crime prevention programs have suffered from the lack of manpower. Violent crime increased 15 percent in 2005 and gang-related crime in Ventura spiked significantly in the first half of this year.
While 62 percent of voters approved the measure, it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. Now, officials are reflecting on what kept the initiative from crossing that threshold and what needs to be done to solve the public safety problems that still exist.
“We didn’t have enough of an opportunity to have that true dialogue in which the citizens express their concerns and those of us who serve the citizens share the information we have,” Cole says. “We hope, after this election, to have more of a chance to talk about the problem.”
According to Cole, much of the opposition to the initiative he heard “overwhelmingly” stemmed from a perception that the city’s spending priorities are out of sync with public need. Assistant Police Chief Ken Corney, who used some of his vacation time to coordinate the P6 campaign, says a lack of understanding about the fiscal complexities of the city budget “contributed significantly” to the measure’s defeat.
“It’s easy for someone to take misinformation about things the city is perceived to be spending money on and assume it’s money that could be spent on public safety when, in reality, it isn’t,” he says.
But Cole agrees that while he considers “Plan A” to have been the best solution, reevaluating the budget is at least one part of the next step toward alleviating the pressure placed on the public safety department as Ventura has grown, now that P6 has been rejected. “As city manager, I stake my job that there isn’t $4.3 million of cuts that the community would support,” he says. “On the other hand, there very well may be support for reallocating some of our lower priority city services to high priority public safety. And, more likely, a little bit of both.”
Despite its defeat, some P6 proponents consider the campaign a success in terms of making people aware of the strain on police and firefighters. According to Corney, the campaign was able to raise $200,000 in donations. And Cole says that while residents still feel like the city is safe, more realize today that there is a problem, as opposed to a year ago when there was little recognition of the existence of any such problem. He and other officials hope that increased awareness will open the door to greater discussion of how to deal with it.
“We got the word out to a lot of people,” says Fire Chief Mike Lavery. “People heard the facts and the vast majority voted ‘Yes,’ we just didn’t hit the standard. I think it was successful, but we still need to address the issue. We still need additional police and firefighters. We need to be engaging the community in dialogue of how to address [that need].”
“I don’t think anyone would argue that there isn’t a need for more [police and firefighters],” Lavery adds. “It’s how we get there. We just need to figure out what’s going to work, what the right solution is for the community.”