Long Beach voters have decisions to make on two local tax measures appearing on the June 7 ballot. Should the local sales tax rate be increased from the current 9 percent to a rate of 10 percent, as proposed by the Long Beach City Council? And, should an $850 million education bond measure suggested by the Long Beach Community College Board of Trustees be approved?
Both measures received unanimous approval from their respective elected bodies on February 23.
Sales Tax Increase
The Long Beach City Council has identified nearly $3 billion of infrastructure needs that require funding, including streets, sidewalks, alleys, storm drains, community buildings, etc. Additionally, the city needs to beef up its police department to battle a spike in crime that is impacting cities throughout the state. The number of police officers is currently at its lowest level since 2008. Lastly, in order to ensure adequate protection and fast response times, the fire department needs to put equipment into service that has been offline for a number of years.
To meet these needs, the city council – at the request of Mayor Robert Garcia – approved a measure that would increase the sales tax for a 10-year period. The current 9 percent tax would be set at 10 percent for the first six years, going into effect January 1, 2017, then reduced to 9.5 percent for the final four years. At 10 percent, the sales tax is expected to raise additional revenue of $48 million annually.
The ballot measure is referred to as a general tax, which requires a 50 percent plus one vote for passage. But that also means the additional money goes directly into the city’s general fund instead of being specifically earmarked for the needs listed above. This raises the question: can voters trust councilmembers to spend the money as promised?
For example, seven of the nine city unions are currently negotiating new contracts, which may not be decided until after the June 7 election. Also, the police and fire unions’ contracts end September 30. Thus, many voters are suspect as to the “real” use of the additional funds.
To answer the trust question, the city council agreed to establish a five-member citizens oversight committee to review city expenditures and to keep taxpayers advised of how the additional sales tax money is being spent.
Toward that end, Councilmember Daryl Supernaw received the city council’s full support to include the following text into the sales tax motion: “In addition to this citizen’s advisory committee, the intent of this council action shall be considered in any future expenditure of these monies. To ensure that expenditures are consistent with the intent of this body, any budget recommendations regarding expenditures associated with this sales tax shall be presented to [the Long Beach] Financial Management [Department] for analysis and review. Financial management shall then prepare a report to the [city council’s] budget oversight committee discussing the recommendations and their alignment with the legislative action that is being taken by way of this motion. Further, financial management will provide city council with a quarterly report outlining the work of the citizen advisory committee as well as any approved budget expenditures. Although the actions of this council and this mayor cannot bind the actions of future councils or mayors in regards to the expenditures of the proposed sales tax increase, this council can state very clearly the intent of this action and expect that the public should hold accountable all future legislators in regards to the expenditures associated with these proposed sales tax increase revenues.”
Prior to the final vote,, North Long Beach Councilmember Rex Richardson stated: “I have said it before and I am going to reiterate it now. I think this proposal is modest. It’s reasonable. . . I don’t know what the voters [are] going to do. But I think they should have an opportunity to help determine their fate. There’s no question that our infrastructure is failing. There’s no question that we need to double down on core public safety services and our emergency response times. But I don’t know that any solution is the perfect solution. So I think that this is modest, I think it’s reasonable. . . . So far it’s demonstrated there is sort of broad support for this. That said, I think we need to send this to the voters.”
Following the vote, Mayor Robert Garcia reiterated that he wanted to be clear the city council is giving voters “the opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. It’s not an endorsement of going in this direction. They will all have an opportunity on their own to make those decisions. But it’s giving the voters the option.”
“This is now in the hands of the Long Beach voters,” Garcia continued. “And over the course of the next few weeks and months ahead, there will be a robust citywide conversation. . . . I want to thank those that advocated to adding the citizens oversight commission and strengthening its ability to monitor these funds as well.”
College Bond Measure
According to Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of the Long Beach Community College District, the two-campus college needs to add and renovate classrooms and address other needs that, once completed, will accommodate the college and its students for half a century.
In a statement, the college outlined that “the measure would upgrade science, engineering, and technology classrooms and labs; repair gas, electrical and sewer lines; fix leaky roofs; and improve earthquake safety, campus security, and handicapped accessibility, among other items.”
The measure, which requires a 55 percent threshold for approval, will cost property owners $25 per $100,000 of assessed valuation on their property. For example, the owner of a home valued at $500,000 will pay $125 annually. The bond runs through the year 2062-63.
A key reason cited by school officials for the college’s third bond measure this century is that matching funds previously promised by the State of California to the college did not occur.
During the February 23 board of trustees meeting, several people spoke in support of the measure. Following the testimony, Board of Trustees President Doug Otto stated: “Tonight we’ve heard from students, faculty and community members who have spoken on how this bond measure will improve education and career training for our students. The college has a significant need to repair and improve our deteriorating classrooms so that we can continue to support 21st century student needs.”
A citizens oversight committee, which has been in place for previous city college bond measures, will continue to monitor how the money is spent, and provide reports to the public.