DOWNEY – On a 4-1 vote, the Downey City Council on Tuesday chose to place a half-cent sales tax increase on November’s general election ballot.
If approved by a majority of voters, the local sales tax in Downey would increase by half a percent (0.5%), raising about $9 million annually.
City officials say the extra funds would be used to hire additional police officers, improve public safety, and make repairs to neglected roads and parks.
The sales tax hike would expire in 2037, and funds would be monitored by an independent citizens oversight committee.
“As a rule of thumb I’m tax adverse, but the difference here is local control,” said Councilman Roger Brossmer.
Mayor Alex Saab was the lone dissenter.
“I’ve been debating this in my head for the longest time. It’s something I take very seriously,” said Councilman Sean Ashton. “The type of money we need is not there. We can’t just tighten our belts to raise $6 million to fix our roads.”
Critics, however, point out that the funds will be deposited into the city’s General Fund with no guarantee that funds are used on their intended purposes.
“The fact that [the additional revenue] goes to the general fund, that’s what makes me nervous,” Saab said. “I still have too many concerns to be able to support this.”
From the public’s perspective, there is also skepticism that additional revenue is necessary to meet the city’s needs.
“I don’t buy it,” Downey resident Misty Linden Hausmann wrote on the Downey Patriot’s Facebook page. “Downey has more tax revenue coming in than ever before with all the new businesses, retail businesses. Home sales are doing very well also.
“I agree more officers are needed but they need to find the money another way. Raising taxes can’t be their only idea.”
City Manager Gilbert Livas said the new Promenade shopping center will generate about $2-$2-1/2 million annually once the center is fully developed.
But that additional revenue will be negated by increasing costs, most notably the city’s financial obligations to CalPERS, the retirement system for public employees.
Livas added that Downey employs 109 police officers today, down from about 124 officers a decade ago. And crime continues to escalate due to prisoners being released from jail early.
“I don’t need studies to tell me that putting more officers on the street will reduce crime,” said Police Chief Carl Charles, responding to a question from Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez. “I don’t think there’s any doubt more police officers are needed in Downey.
“At some point do we reach a saturation point? Probably, but we’re nowhere near that.”
Last week, the three unions representing Downey police officers announced their support for the sales tax increase.
“We are confident in the safeguards that are being proposed, such as a clearly defined citizen’s oversight committee, that the half-cent sales tax revenue will be spent appropriately and on its intended purpose,” officers said in a joint statement. “We would not put our credibility on the line if we didn’t feel the half-cent sales tax increase wasn’t absolutely necessary.”
In other City Council news:
2016-17 Budget: Council members approved a $156.7 million fiscal budget for 2016-17.
Downey’s “diversified tax base and geographical location have led to a strong recovery from the most recent economic downturn,” finance director Anil Gandhy wrote in a report to the City Council, adding that property tax revenue increased 3.7% from last year, while income from sales tax jumped 5.8%.
However, Gandhy warned that the city still has “significant unfunded needs for the infrastructure and services the Downey residents are used to.”
The balanced budget included a $500,000 appropriation from city reserves for license plate readers and $450,000 for various park projects.
The license plate readers will be placed at major entrances into Downey and alert police of stolen cars and criminal suspects entering the city.
Deal with Firefighters: A labor deal has been reached between the City of Downey and the Downey Fire Management Association, which represents the assistant fire chief and battalion chiefs.
The agreement includes 3% across the board salary raises. There are also increases to other incentives and merit pay:
■1% increase to education incentive pay (5% for associate’s degree or California State Fire Officer Certificate with 15 units or related coursework, and 8.5% for bachelor’s degree or California State Chief Fire Officer of equivalent;
■Addition of longevity pay provision: 10 years at 5.5% and 20 years at 8.402%;
■Increase in medical opt-out rates (in lieu of city-paid medical coverage) from $150 to $300 per month for employee-only coverage, and from $500 to $650 per month for employee plus two or more dependents;
■Increase in bilingual pay from $46.15 to $70 biweekly;
■Increase in sick leave conversion maximum for deposit into the city’s retirement health savings plan at retirement or death from 2,363 to 2,850 hours for 56-hour employees and from 1,575 to 1,900 hours for 40-hour employees.
City Fees: The city is raising fees on various services -- mostly in public works -- to better match their actual cost of service, officials said.
The increased fees are expected to generate an additional $25,000 annually.
As part of the fee schedule, the Columbia Memorial Space Center is offering Downey-based civic clubs and youth groups one free use of the space center building or amphitheater per calendar year.
Staff charges will apply if the event takes place outside the space center’s normal operating hours, along with security charges if alcohol is served or attendance exceeds 100 people.
The space center is also instituting a 20% discount for AAA members.
Downtown Security: The City Council extended its contract with RMI International, which provides security patrol in Downtown Downey, an additional six months.
Awards: Sam and Beverly Mathis received the Mayor's Distinguished Citizens Award in recognition of their community service.
The mayor also recognized Downey's new Special Olympics basketball team, which went undefeated at a recent tournament at Whittier College.