When Santa Monica voters go to the polls in November they will have the chance to either approve or reject a half-cent sales tax to help support various city services.
The City Council voted unanimously July 13 to place a transactions and use tax measure on the ballot for the November 2 election. The tax would be used to offset what city staff say are severe state cuts and preserve essential city services such as police, fire and emergency services, school programs, public transit, services for the disabled and gang prevention programs.
In addition, voters will have the opportunity to decide through an advisory ballot measure if half of the projected $12 million generated through the tax should be used to benefit the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
As a general tax, the ballot measure would require a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote for approval. If passed, none of the money generated would go to the state.
In recommending the tax measure, city staff said the city has lost $40 million to the state over the past six years and additional raids are predicted due to the state budget crisis. The city anticipates a $4.1 million deficit this year despite a number of cost-cutting actions including spending reductions and fee adjustments.
Staff noted that the five-year forecast projects the city’s expenses to grow at a rate that exceeds revenue growth, which would cause the deficit to rise. Aside from the city’s financial struggles, the school district has also faced budget cuts, such as teacher layoffs and reduced programs, with the loss in state funding and the defeat of a parcel tax measure in May.
In supporting the tax measure, City Councilwoman Gleam Davis said the city has a tradition of providing a high level of services to its constituents but those services cost money.
“Two things are clear to me: This community would not tolerate any significant cuts in servicesÖ and we can’t cost-cut our way out of this problem,” Davis said.
“I think this (measure) represents a tremendous opportunity for us to continue to provide high quality public safety, social and other services to our community.”
A poll of city voters conducted in late June found that 59 percent would vote in favor of the half-cent sales tax if the election were held today, while 38 percent would oppose it. When the voters were provided with additional information, support rose to 64 percent and opposition dropped to 31 percent.
According to the same poll, 71 percent of respondents were more inclined to vote in favor of the measure when they were informed of the city’s $40 million loss in state funding and that the money would help maintain local services.
City Manager Rod Gould explained that if approved, the sales tax would only apply to goods and services and would not impact medicine and food purchases.
Members of the public both for and against the transactions and use tax spoke before the council vote.
“I really think this is not a good idea at this time to go forward with a flat tax in this manner,” said Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold, adding that he supports a measure specifically for the school district. “I have yet to see with all the things going on in the city the urgent need for this fee.”
Neil Carrey, who was involved with a committee that studied the parcel tax measure for schools, said he likes that the city would not only have a chance to support education with the tax but public safety employees. Former City Council member Tony Vasquez, who said he was not thrilled about an increased sales tax, agreed.
“I don’t know if we have much of a choice these days,” he said. “This is one way to assist not only the cityÖ but public schools as well.”
Rebecca Kennerly, chair of the Community for Excellent Public Schools, said the group was strongly in favor of having the advisory measure related to schools paired with the use tax on the ballot.
“These paired measures are forward thinking and represent an extremely effective method to provide greatly needed increased revenue for all essential city services,” she told the council.
Following the City Council’s approval of the advisory measure, the Board of Education chose not to place another parcel tax on the November ballot.
Mayor Bobby Shriver, who voted against placing the tax on the ballot at the previous meeting, said the city’s financial situation is not as poor as it may seem but he voted to support the measure this time because he didn’t want to preclude public empowerment.
City Councilman Kevin McKeown said he also supports allowing the public to decide if a sales tax is the best way to maintain needed services.
“I think now that the issue is before the community we should let the voters make up their minds on this,” he said.