Debate continues over Police, Fire funding
CALIFORNIA CITY — More than a year after voters overwhelmingly passed a special parcel tax to fund the Police and Fire departments, the City Council continues to debate the appropriate tax rate, despite the fact that collections are already set for the current tax year.
During the Sept. 10 meeting, the Council agreed in principle to proceed as if a lower rate was in effect, and saving the additional revenues collected on the tax rolls by Kern County in a reserve account.
The virtual reduction from $172.50 per parcel per year to $153 per parcel per year in 2019-2020 will become the actual rate charged for the 2020-2021 tax year, as well.
The Council voted 4-1 for these changes, with Mayor Chuck McGuire dissenting on fears that the city can not afford the cuts this will make to the public safety budgets.
The two decisions will be formalized by resolution at the next meeting.
The debate has colored the special tax process since before the July 2018 special election which ushered in the latest version of a special parcel tax on which the city has depended for decades.
Prior to that vote, the Council considered a lower rate than named in the ballot measure, with much discussion since over what was promised.
In the July 2018 special election, Measure C received 2,089 votes in favor, or 80.22%, and 515 votes against it, or 19.78%. It required 66.66% to pass.
The ballot measure authorized a tax of up to
$182.50 per parcel per year to fund the Police and Fire departments. It includes a formula for reducing the amount of the special tax annually if other revenues increase over the tax’s six-year duration.
In its first year, the Council voted 4-1 for the maximum $182.50 annual tax rate, with Councilman Gene Stump dissenting. He supported an annual rate of $153.
Some residents believed the council had pledged prior to the election to set a lower rate, one more in line with the $150 per parcel per year rate of the previous special tax, which expired one month prior to the special election.
Opponents cited discussions held during City Council meetings between when Measure C was approved for the ballot and the election itself regarding setting the tax rate at less than the maximum.
There was debate from the public about whether or not council members promised a lower rate. City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen said the council had not taken any concrete action regarding a lower tax rate prior to the election, as he had specifically recommended against it because it would only cause confusion among voters.
Since the special tax vote in July 2018, the Council has two new members, Nick Lessenevitch, elected in November and Ron Smith, appointed in July.
For the 2019-2020 tax year, the Council in July set the rate slightly lower, at $172.50 per parcel per year. Anticipated revenues from the commercial marijuana industry did not materialize as hoped and the formula would have left the rate at the maximum.
The Council, however, wanted a show of good faith to voters that the tax would decrease over time.
The vote was 3-2 in favor of the $172.50, with Lessenevitch and Smith dissenting. The pair had favored setting the tax rate at $153 this year, as had been considered previously.
Councilman Donald Parris requested the matter be brought before the Council again at the Sept. 10 meeting, citing citizen complaints that the Council had not upheld a pledge to set it at $153.
“If we’re going to be truthful as Council members and if we’re going to hold ourselves to standards of integrity, we need to do this,” he said.
Parris said the maximum $182.50 was to fully staff the Police and Fire departments, which has not yet happened.
“We’re not anywhere near close to that. Those moneys appear to have been spent anyway,” he said. “If you have it, you spend it.”
By placing the excess revenue in reserves, the money will be available should the staffing increase.
“It’s not going away. We’re just holding you more accountable,” Parris said.
Smith argued the city needs to begin now to wean itself off the special parcel tax and pay for the public safety without it.
“What we are living on now as a city should take care of our public safety as well,” he said. “We are living way, way beyond our means.”
The city has yet to finalize its budget for the 20192020 fiscal year, which began July 1. It has been operating with monthly stopgap measures maintaining spending at no more than 2018-2019 levels.
Continuing a debate that has raged for more than a year, the California City Council agreed to lower the special parcel tax rate by about $20 per parcel per year, which will reduce the revenues available to the Police and Fire departments.