DOWNEY − Under pressure from city staff to find new revenue streams for public safety and street repairs, the Downey City Council reluctantly moved forward with plans to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot in November.
In a 3-2 decision, with Mayor Alex Saab and Councilman Sean Ashton dissenting, the city council decided to let voters weigh in on whether a permanent sales tax hike, which would provide the city an additional $9 million annually, is necessary.
City Manager Gilbert Livas believes it is.
"It's my job to make sure we stay ahead of the curve. The truth is we're not at the revenue source we were at in 2007," said Livas.
The reason behind the slow down in revenue? Car dealerships (or better yet, the lack thereof).
As a result of the Great Recession, Downey lost three dealerships when Ford, Cadillac, and Acura succumbed to the plummeting economy. As dealerships shutdown so did the city's sales tax revenue, which relied heavily on the millions of dollars the businesses generated each year.
"It would take three department stores to make up for every dealership we've lost," Livas said.
While sales tax revenues remain flat, the need for more public safety, park renovations, and street overhauls is mounting, according to city officials.
Usually staffed at 111-115 officers, the Downey Police Department currently has 109 police officers on payroll.
"For us to be proactive and increase patrols, we need 7-10 additional officers," said Chief Carl Charles, who acknowledged that state law AB 109, which released thousands of prisoners, is increasing local crime.
Livas said the cost of hiring the additional officers adds up to $1.3-1.5 million annually. A small amount compared to the potential cost of revamping the city's aging parks and repaving residential streets.
"We have a lot of outside shoppers in our city," said Livas. "A tax increase would help fix the local streets, upgrade our parks, and make sure our police and fire have the best equipment."
Councilman Luis Marquez echoed the city manager, concerned that the city's public services could fall behind without additional funding.
"It's been 30 years since our parks have been touched," he said. "No matter how many grants we receive, we'll never get to the complete needs of the city.
"It should be up to the residents to decide."
Likewise, Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez agreed that residents should be offered the chance to vote on the tax hike, which would elevate the city's sales tax from 9 percent to 9.5 percent, if approved by a simple majority of voters.
"I know I pay enough in taxes, but I value our public safety and life -- what value do we put on life," said Vasquez, recalling the recent string of deaths in the city.
"Why now? If there ever was a time [to place this on the ballot], it's now when a majority of people are out here to vote."
However, Saab is pushing back against the tax proposal, suggesting the city opt for spending cuts and waste reductions before burdening residents with a new tax.
"My concerns are how this will affect existing businesses and new businesses in our city," Saab said. "I don't know if this the right time for this...we have a lot of positive growth happening in the city. We don't want to make people think twice about investing in our city."
Prior to the vote on Tuesday, the city council reviewed results of a survey conducted in February by polling agency Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, who interviewed 400 Downey residents likely to vote in the November election.
When asked if the city was in need of additional funding to provide an adequate level of city services, 23 percent answered there was "great need and 47 percent said there was "some need." Nearly 25 percent said there was "little or no need" and 5 percent were unsure.
When asked directly about a potential sales tax increase, 45 percent said they would definitely vote in favor while another 25 percent said the would probably vote yes or lean towards yes. The poll revealed that 29 percent indicated they would not support the measure.
The city council on Tuesday also approved an $83,000 contract with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, which will educate the public on the sales tax increase measure.