Daily Breeze (Torrance)

Council again will try to get voters to OK sales tax hike

- By David Rosenfeld drosenfeld@scng.com

A little over a year since city voters rejected a similar sales tax measure, the Torrance City Council on Tuesday night approved placing a 3/4-cent sales tax hike on the June 2022 elections ballot.

The reasoning, much like before, centered around the need to increase revenues when expenses are climbing and reserves are thin. Now those supporting the tax also have the pandemicer­a woes to cite, which depleted the city’s reserve funds down to below required levels this year.

Councilman Aurelio Mattucci, who along with Councilman

George Chen were the only two opposed among five other colleagues, said he saw no difference between the proposed ballot measure and Measure X that failed in March 2020 with 58% of voters opposed.

“I can appreciate all the comments made my staff and the chiefs,” Mattucci said. “In a way, I feel that we always revert to how it’s going to affect public safety and the way we live. We are going to cut back on all the beautiful things we do in town. And I get that. Although what I don’t get that is we mention certain things that should have already been paid for.”

In a presentati­on to the council preceding the vote, city officials presented scenarios that would play out if the proposed sales tax increase was or was not passed. The tax is estimated to raise $26.7 million annually. But even with it’s revenue boost, the city would reduce its general fund budget by 3%, or $6.3 million. Without the tax, the city would reduce budgets by 5%, or $13.8 million.

Under current projection­s — in which expenses surpass revenues — officials estimate the city will operate with a budget deficit for the next 10 years.

“Can we recover without a sales tax measure? I guess,” Mayor Pat Furey said. “But the quality of life is going to change in Torrance for the next 20 to 40 years, which is devastatin­g to myself and my colleagues up here.”

Police and fire department­s account for 60% of the city’s general fund budget, so reducing in places other than staff is impossible, said police Chief Jeremiah Hart, whose department has been asked to reduce its budget by $5.2 million this year. The department will accomplish most of the cuts through vacancies and attrition.

With patrol staff stretched thin, specialize­d division officers — such as those in the detective bureau — are being asked to work at least two patrol shifts per month. Now it could be three. Those types of requiremen­ts and other pressures on the job have led more officers to retire early, Hart said.

“We may reach a point even right now where we have to adjust the kinds of calls we can respond to in order to stay available to more severe calls for service,” Hart said.

Under the proposal to cut 5%, public safety would incur a loss of about $8.5 million. Hart said that would change the level of services they could provide, but the department will always be committed to responding to 911 emergency calls. What may fall to the wayside, Hart said, were property crime investigat­ions and things such as drug deaths at a time when deaths related to fentanyl were up 30% in Torrance.

Under a third scenario presented by city officials Tuesday, in the event the sales tax doesn’t pass, the city could maintain public safety budgets at their current levels while implementi­ng draconian cuts of about 20% to all other services.

Such a proposal might include, according to city officials, eliminatin­g a housing improvemen­t program for seniors as well as other special community programs. There could be full or partial facility closures including branch libraries, the marsh and a nature center, officials said.

Special events such a July 4 fireworks could be cancelled, the level of services reduced and delays increased. Airport fees could rise. A reduction in landscapin­g and maintenanc­e and more potholes will result, officials said.

Councilman Chen, who opposed putting the sales tax measure on the ballot, said the city needed to challenge itself to think harder for more creative solutions.

“There are times when we need to exercise even more stringent fiscal discipline to separate our wants form our most basic service requiremen­ts,” Chen said.

Ultimately, voters will have the final say in June 2022. The city will spend $420,000 on a consultant and begin the process of getting the measure on the ballot and educating the public.

Officials will make the case that funds are needed to plug a budget gap of $30 million in the near time to achieve the necessary level of reserve funds and continued funding in the years to come to balance the budget further. About half of the tax is expected to be paid by non-residents.

Officials said the city lost about $15 million in projected revenue over the past 15 months, which brought the city’s reserve funds down to less than $600,000 at one point.

If enacted, Torrance would spend the estimated $26.7 million in the following ways:

• $18.5 million to address quality of life issues, such as homelessne­ss response, public safety, park improvemen­ts, downtown revitaliza­tion, affordable housing and city beatificat­ion.

• $6 million for fiscal sustainabi­lity to rebuild the city’s reserve balances for unforeseen emergencie­s.

• $1.5 million for city building improvemen­ts and maintenanc­e to address aging infrastruc­ture, compliance with the Americans with Disabiliti­es Act, and seismic upgrades.

• $750,000 for cyber security, a top priority after the city suffered an attack last year.

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