Op-Ed published 4/10/16 – Yes on Measure UUT – A Vote For Sierra Madre, by John Capoccia, Mayor
On April 12, Sierra Madreans will vote on Measure UUT. Measure UUT is asking you to set the Utility Users Tax at 10%, which is what it was from 2009 to 2015, when Sierra Madre enjoyed balanced budgets and growing reserves. Sierra Madre is now facing a $500,000 deficit in the current year, and a $1,000,000 projected deficit next year, because of the step-down of the Utility Users Tax. These massive budget deficits are not sustainable. Deep cuts that threaten our town as we know it are imminent without the fiscal security provided by Measure UUT.
Measure UUT gives Sierra Madre a choice – Do you want to continue to provide the means for our town to prosper, or shall there be cuts that could have far-reaching and unpredictable effects? Your City Council unanimously agrees that if Measure UUT does not pass, our recreational and community service programs will be decimated, library hours will be dramatically reduced, maintenance of city facilities such as parks, roads and sidewalks will be compromised, and the loss of revenue could result in outsourcing one or more departments such as Police, Paramedic or Library.
It is simply not realistic to expect that our town can thrive after losing such a large portion of our General Fund revenue.
Many that are in favor of deep cuts to the City’s budget have a thread of commonality – they are more concerned about themselves and keeping a few extra bucks in their wallets than they are concerned about preserving our historic Village of the Foothills, and they’ll resort to the spread of misinformation and employ underhanded tactics to get you to side with them. Some of them don’t even live here, or haven’t lived here long enough to understand or appreciate Sierra Madre. Many are devoted to anti-tax dogma and are willing to sacrifice our beloved Sierra Madre to demonstrate their ideological purity. Sure, there are some upstanding citizens with a legitimate concern that growth of government has gone too far and excessive taxation hinders economic growth, but here in Sierra Madre, your local utility tax pays for the services and programs that Sierra Madreans value. I urge these folks to take a hard look at the facts, and I know they’ll side with those that love this town and will vote YES on Measure UUT.
Here are some of the weak arguments put forth by those opposed to Measure UUT and why they should be ignored:
- If we outsource the Police Department by contracting with LA County Sheriff, we don’t need the UUT. Yes, we could save perhaps $200,000 per year (for now) by contracting with the Sheriff. We could reduce police presence and permanently close our facility and save more, but that will result in slower response times and more crime. So where will we make up the remaining $800,000 deficit without compromising safety? What happens a few years from now if we realize we made a mistake? – Too bad! Once our PD is gone, we’ll never get it back. The UUT is a small price to pay to keep local control of our police, which has faithfully kept Sierra Madre as one of the safest communities in the nation.
- Sierra Madre can’t afford the 10% UUT and needs to live within its means. That’s bunk. We can afford it and we have. The rate was 10% from 2009 to 2015. If we couldn’t afford it, why did voters overwhelmingly approve Measure U in 2008 at the higher 12% rate? To cut costs, we’ve contracted out landscape maintenance, our pool, and now all of our recreation programs. Was that a good idea? Some think not, that we’ve gone too far with cost-cutting. Sierra Madre’s per capita income is $81,395, which is higher than Arcadia’s. Monrovia has a per capita income of only $64,949, yet they have FIVE (yes, 5) voter-approved additional assessments against property, that when added together, cost Monrovians way more than what Sierra Madreans pay on their utility tax, even at the 10% UUT rate! How is it that Monrovia can “afford” to pay even more than Sierra Madre, especially when Sierra Madreans earn 25% more? It’s not a question of affordability, it’s a question of whether you value the things that make our town special and whether you’re willing to keep it that way.
- When voters approved the 12% UUT rate in 2008, it came with a “promise” that it would sunset. The “no” folks are not very clever. Witness their recent mailer, where they attempt to mislead you with a partial quote from the 2008 impartial ballot analysis. They crudely omitted a few critical words from the city attorney’s actual text. Here, I’ve added the critical words back in (in bold face type) so that you can have the full story. It reads: “Unless approved anew by the voters, the rate will decrease over time…”. Clearly Measure U was meant to be reconsidered by the voters prior to the sunset, which makes sense if you read the Citizen’s Ad-Hoc Finance Committee’s November 8, 2007 report to the City Council. The second bullet on the first page states that “The council should consider the political necessity of the sunset clause, although the public safety needs are not expected to subside”. Obviously, the committee recognized that the revenue needs were ongoing, and the sunset clause was included to reassure voters should conditions change. Well, the committee was right, the conditions haven’t changed, and we now have a deficit after years of balanced budgets because of the step-down of the UUT.
- Public sector pensions are too generous. If we cut the city’s revenue then they won’t have to pay for the pensions. This is a tea-party favorite, and is patently absurd. If you look at the experience of Stockton and San Bernardino, both of which filed for bankruptcy, pension obligations were protected, while public safety and other city services suffered. And of course, this happened after a lot of very expensive litigation. A city cannot simply walk away from its pension obligations, even in bankruptcy, and especially without first gutting all the other services including public safety, that the city provides for its citizens.
- The budget keeps rising, which means that the city hasn’t cut expenses. The city has cut expenses – this has been well documented, so I’m not going to go over that again. I will however, draw attention to the reports from the annual UUT Oversight Committee. The committee’s existence came in to being with Measure U in 2008, and its purpose is to ensure that the incremental revenue raised by Measure U goes to public safety. The last UUT Oversight Committee Report dated November 10, 2015 states this: “…the UUT Committee has concluded that for the year ended June 30, 2014, the increase in public safety expenditures over the base year of 2008 ($1,920,695) exceeded the increase in UUT revenues over the base year ($1,277,795) in the amount of $642,900…”. This means that there was $642,900 less from the general fund than what was available to spend on non-public safety in the last fiscal year compared to 2008. How is this possible? Because of budget cuts, that’s how!
- Lost UUT revenue will be replaced by the continual rise of property values and the corresponding increase in property tax revenue. This was the main argument put forth by the authors against measure UUT in 2014, and they were just plain wrong, but they managed to fool enough people to defeat the measure. And because they were wrong, we now have a deficit and are spending hard-earned reserves. Now they’re pushing dissolution of the Sierra Madre PD as the budget savior – and guess what? They’re wrong again!
Your City Council is unanimous in support of Measure UUT, because they know that we cannot keep Sierra Madre the special place that it is without sufficient revenue to support the services and programs that our citizens expect.
Let’s not take for granted what we cherish. We have safe neighborhoods, fast response from Police, Fire and Paramedics, eclectic neighborhoods, a picturesque, charming downtown, and unspoiled hillsides. We have low density, effective anti-mansionization laws, no traffic signals, a fantastic library and high property values. Sierra Madre is a great place to raise a family and is the envy of other communities. Let’s ensure that future generations feel the same way about this special place.
We all dislike paying taxes. However, here in Sierra Madre your utility tax dollars provide for your safety and security, terrific library services and community programs. Your local tax dollars are used efficiently and effectively for your benefit, allowing your city to keep development in check to preserve this special oasis. I don’t need to remind anyone that Sierra Madre has no Walmarts, K-Marts, strip malls, auto malls, hotels or racetracks to pad the city coffers like our neighbors. Nor do we have ANY additional property tax assessments like many of our neighbors. Yes, we have a utility tax and we rely on it to keep Sierra Madre special!
Please, join those that care about Sierra Madre – on April 12 Vote YES on Measure UUT!