San Bernardino Council Puts Tax on Ballot
Extra Revenue to go Toward Public Safety
Robert Rogers, Staff Writer
SAN BERNARDINO - The City Council unanimously declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, paving the way to place a general sales-tax increase before voters in November.
By voting without opposition to a series of six resolutions, the council granted Mayor Pat Morris' wish to give voters an opportunity to pledge a quarter-percent more in sales taxes to hire 26 more police and fund other crime programs.
After the vote, Morris struck a triumphant tone.
"You see before you a unanimous City Council firmly of the belief that we have, as statistics tell us, a public-safety crisis," Morris said. "And to find a solution, we must commit ourselves to funding these additional police officers and programs that will reduce our epidemic of violent crime, of gang-related crime."
Although the vote was unanimous, support for the declaration and putting a tax that could generate $5.6 million annually on November's ballot was far from unqualified.
The vote followed weeks of political wrangling and compromise as Morris first worked to garner support from the business community, and then found himself for a while at loggerheads with council members Neil Derry and Wendy McCammack.
Ultimately, Derry and McCammack were brought aboard by assurances that an additional resolution, this one to scale back other taxes, would come before the council at its Aug. 21 meeting.
Derry, who represents the 4th Ward, made clear early Tuesday that his support for Morris' proposal came at a price.
"I'm supporting the mayor because I'm getting my tax cut up front," Derry said, adding that he expects to pass on Aug. 21 a measure to reduce the utility-users tax and a cap on business licensing fees amounting to about $400,000 annually. The utility-users tax reduction would drop the rate from 7.93 percent to 7.83 percent.
The tone of the council was amiable Tuesday as members said they had heard from constituents who favored more police funding. Although Morris hesitated at the notion that the council's support came from a compromise crafted by his opposition, McCammack said that was exactly the case.
"It was absolutely a compromise," said the 7th Ward councilwoman, who during the meeting reiterated repeatedly for the record that she did not support a tax hike, only the citizens' right to vote on the issue. "And my vote was only because the majority of voters in the 7th Ward were in support of putting it on the ballot."
Tuesday's vote will put on the November ballot a proposed sales-tax increase from 7.75 percent to 8 percent, or an additional 25 cents on a $100 purchase. It is a general tax, meaning it can be spent at the council's discretion, but the mayor and legal advisers have crafted language emphasizing that the money will be put toward public safety.
Proponents, led by Morris, say the measure has public support and is a crucial step in funding sustained anti-crime efforts, chiefly fully staffing the Police Department's 21-beat plan with 26 more officers by 2008.
The Mayor's Office commissioned a poll last month that found 92 percent of residents "extremely" or "very" concerned about crime. The same poll found two-thirds willing to bear a quarter-cent sales-tax increase for more police officers and anti-crime programs.
The latitude legally required under general-tax rules elicited broader concern from the council. Second Ward Councilman Dennis Baxter and 1st Ward Councilwoman Esther Estrada, both of whom generally support Morris' drive to beef up anti-crime programs, have expressed that they want money focused on police.
Derry said early Tuesday that he shares the concern, but that the situation is muddled by the decision to go for a general tax as opposed to a special tax, which must be used for a specific purpose but requires a two-thirds majority.
"I am very concerned by all the language about youth programs," Derry said. "The voters want police officers on the street, they don't want a tax for a bunch of welfare programs."
One stipulation that enjoyed broad council support was a citizens' oversight committee, which would review annually how the city is spending the sales-tax revenue.
The council's vote Tuesday vaulted the sales-tax only over a first hurdle. The measure now faces three months in the political winds before landing at the bottom of a ballot already crammed with state propositions.
Fresh off the victory, Morris was undaunted by the prospect of months of sniping by tax opponents and a spot on a packed ballot. He reiterated that 92 percent of poll respondents were at least very concerned about crime.
"All the issues on the (Nov. 7) ballot are more geographically distant from our city voters than this issue," Morris said.
Sixth Ward Councilman Rikke Van Johnson said he was pleased that the issue was now in voters' hands.
"The ball is in their court," Johnson said.