Campaign Launched for Utility, Safety Taxes

It’s never pleasant to ponder worst-case scenarios. But potentially harsh realities compelled several concerned citizens to gather in front of the San Marino Fire Station on a scorching-hot afternoon last week.
Members of the Committee of San Marino Residents for Measures U & SA, they assembled to launch a campaign on behalf of the utility user tax and the public safety tax, both of which will be on the ballot in the Nov. 3 election. Together, the measures will bolster San Marino’s budget with $4.64 million in the current fiscal year, or 19% of the city’s net revenues.
Jerry Hawk, one of four co-chairs on the committee, cited San Marino’s “benchmark standard” that is encompassed in city services, infrastructure maintenance and safety. Police and fire routinely have response times of two-to-three minutes, he noted, and “You can’t catch your breath in that short amount of time.”
Perhaps acknowledging the carping that has occurred at City Council meetings lately over San Marino’s municipal expenditures, Hawk added, “You don’t have to bury yourself in the budget to validate what I just said. You just have to go out and drive around in the different communities and see the differences. … This is a nice community that we live in, and we don’t take it for granted, but it isn’t free.”
To undergird its services, San Marino has relied on the two local taxes for some time. The public safety tax, which has been in place since 1980, will provide more than $2.9 million in the current fiscal year, which represents nearly one-fourth of the city’s police and fire budget. A parcel tax, it requires 67% of the vote, and in nine previous elections never got less than 71%.
The utility user tax, established by the City Council in 1992, collects money on use of electricity, natural gas, water and telecommunications. It will account for more than $1.7 million in the current fiscal year, or nearly 7% of the city’s unrestricted funds. The utility user tax requires a simple majority to pass, and the last time it came up for a vote, in 2006, it had 58.3% support.
“Property tax is the main source of revenue for us,” said Vice Mayor Dr. Allan Yung, “but we only get about 25 cents for every dollar we collect. On the contrary, every penny from these two measures goes to our city, entirely, for our citizens.”
Mort Mortimer, one of the co-chairs and a retired judge, echoed the point after admitting, “I hate to pay taxes.” Taxes on income, residential property and gasoline are sent off to various governmental entities, but only a portion of the money makes it to San Marino. These tax revenues, Mortimer said, “come directly back to our local government, 100%. This money is simply a good investment to guarantee that our local services remain intact.”
One night before the campaign launch, City Manager John Schaefer attempted to give the City Council a sense of what those services would look like if one or the other were voted down, or — in his “Armageddon scenario” — if both of the taxes went away.
“I feel we run a very tight ship,” he added. “We are not at a place where we can say, ‘We can make an 11% cut because we have that kind of fat in our budget.’ We don’t.”
If the utility user tax were voted down, Schaefer’s sketched-out cuts would scale capital projects back by $800,000 per year, reduce recreation offerings, eliminate funding of the Old Mill, require the Crowell Public Library to operate with $75,000 less, and eliminate a detective and three firefighters.
If the public safety tax failed, Schaefer said, the Police Department and Fire Department would each have to eliminate eight positions, in addition to a steeper cutback in capital projects. “I don’t think we could operate the Police Department if we lost eight positions,” he said. “We would have to contract out [with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department].”
And if both taxes are defeated, Schaefer continued, “you would have to include everything on the list” — capital projects, recreation, Old Mill, library, eight firefighters, nine police officers, plus other cuts.
Mayor Eugene Sun quickly responded, “Of course, if it comes to that, we will have citizens’ input before taking a vote.”
The committee has begun some broad outreach to avert any of these possibilities. One of the co-chairs, Linda Sun, briefly reiterated her colleagues’ points in English, then continued in Mandarin for the benefit of three Chinese-language TV news crews.

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