Voters to decide on local issues at Feb. 5 primary

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

This election season, there is a new addition to the usual assortment of school bond measures, term limit propositions and fireworks proposals that often dominate local ballot questions: three cities -- including Los Angeles -- are asking voters to let them keep collecting a telephone users tax they have come to depend on heavily.

In all, 10 cities and school districts in Los Angeles County have added local measures to the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot. Eight are seeking taxes of some sort; of the remainder, one asks voters to outlaw fireworks sales and the other proposes easing term limits on local elected officials.

Voter guide: An item in Sunday's California Voter Guide about Measure R in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District identified Measure R opponent Polly Benson-Brown as a former school board member. She did not serve on the board. —

In Los Angeles, the 40-year-old telephone, or communications users, tax generates about $270 million a year, which officials say helps pay for police and fire services as well as street repairs and recreation and parks programs. The City Council, the mayor and public employee unions are urging voters to agree to the tax, thereby rendering a potentially unfavorable court ruling irrelevant.

Although the communications users tax has been widely used around the U.S. for about four decades, it recently has come under attack in the courts because of changes in federal tax law that exempt certain telephone services. Los Angeles and several other cities are hoping to protect the longtime revenue source by getting voters' permission to keep it.

And although Los Angeles' measure would drop the 10% tax rate to 9%, it also would expand the levy to telephone calls made via computer. The loss of the users tax would translate into severe cuts, city financial analysts have warned, including slashing the Fire Department in half or reducing the size of the Police Department by 2,700 officers or cutting 4,200 other employees from the city payroll.

Pasadena and Huntington Park officials also are asking their voters to approve a communications tax they already are paying. The cities say they can't afford to lose the revenue: Huntington Park seeks to charge residents 6.5% -- down from 7% -- and Pasadena officials want to keep their tax at 8.28%.

"Pasadena could be forced to reverse course and cut services by over $10 million a year," according to ballot arguments in favor of the measure.

Although telecommunications giants have been mostly silent on the ballot measure, a spokesman for Verizon told The Times in October that the company believes the tax burden should not fall disproportionately on their customers.

Elsewhere in the county, voters in four school districts are being asked to allow them to borrow money to modernize school technology and renovate old buildings. The measures, all seeking permission to issue bonds, need 55% "yes" votes for passage.

Long Beach Community College District's bond measure seeks $440 million to renovate science, nursing, police and firefighting classrooms. San Gabriel Unified School District wants $65 million to upgrade its technology and replace its libraries and music and athletic rooms. Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District seeks $46.2 million to replace Vasquez High School's portable classrooms and to build classrooms, a gymnasium and a media center. Redondo Beach Unified School District seeks $145 million in construction bonds to modernize classrooms and other facilities.

Taxpayers would pay back money borrowed through the bonds over a period of 20 years or more.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is asking voters for an annual parcel tax. Measure R, which would be on the books indefinitely, would replace two previously passed parcel taxes, which are to expire in 2009 and 2011.

If the measure is approved by at least two-thirds of voters, proceeds from the tax, which would start at $346 per property and could be adjusted yearly for inflation, would help pay for teachers and such programs as art and music.

Not all of next month's local ballot measures deal with taxes, however. Voters in Inglewood will decide whether to ban fireworks in their city, while those in Downey will determine whether to ease term limits for their elected officials.

Although Inglewood plans to continue its official Fourth of July pyrotechnic celebrations in Vincent Park, Measure F would forbid members of the public to buy or use fireworks. Proponents of the measure cite regular incidents of injuries and property damage from the fireworks and claim "the frightful pandemonium taking place in many of our neighborhoods will now hopefully come to an end," according to arguments filed in favor of the measure.

Opponents say laws already prohibit the kind of fireworks that cause most injuries and property damage, and a ban would only hurt the nonprofit groups that depend on their sales of permitted types of fireworks to help fund important services.

"Don't penalize Inglewood churches, service clubs, school organizations and law-abiding citizens this July 4th," opponents' ballot arguments said.

Downey voters will decide whether to allow their City Council members to hold three consecutive terms in office. Since 1993, council members have been limited to two terms. The measure also would allow former council members to run again if they have not held city office for at least two years.

Those backing the measure, including the current mayor and school board president, say term limits have made it difficult for office holders to complete projects and resolve issues.

"Term limits was a novel idea 15 years ago which has been proven disastrous today," reads one ballot argument in favor of the measure.

Those opposing the idea, including two former mayors, say the measure's approval would return the city to a time when elected officials cared more about staying in office than effecting change.

"The Downey City Council will be more accountable when new faces and voices are brought in to replace career politicians who don't deliver on their promises even with eight years to do it," those against the measure said in ballot arguments.

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