Quarter-cent sales tax measure to aid L.A. County homeless is placed on March ballot

After listening to a cavalcade of speakers praise them for a vote they hadn’t yet taken, Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously placed a quarter-cent sales tax proposal on the March ballot to fund homeless programs.

The five supervisors voted with little comment on the measure, which is expected to raise about $355 million a year over its 10-year lifespan  if it gains the two-thirds majority required. Instead, they left the talking to nearly 100 speakers who came to promote the homeless tax.

The measure is intended to provide the final piece of  the funding that county and L.A. city officials say is needed to address the homeless encampments that have proliferated across the region.

County officials described the sales tax as a complement to the $1.2-billion general obligation bond measure approved by Los Angeles city voters last month.

The city funds, and hundreds of millions of dollars in state mental health funds expected to flow into the county in the years ahead, can be used only for capital construction. Over the next 10 years they will fund thousands of units of housing designed to provide chronically homeless people permanent shelter backed up by services.

Phil Ansell, head of the county’s homelessness initiative, told the board the sales tax money would be used to provide those services and subsidies to help pay the rent.

Ansell said a study conducted with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority had identified a gap of $450 million a year needed to provide programs for the 47,000 people estimated to be homeless in the county.

The effect of the quarter-cent sales tax on county residents would be “a dime on a $40 sweater or $1 on a $400 TV,” Ansell said.

Mitchell Katz, head of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, set the tone for the hearing, contrasting homelessness with other conditions such as diabetes that he cannot cure.

“I can actually cure homelessness,” Katz said. “The cure is a house.”

But he added, “There is no way we can, with existing funds, move 47,000 into housing.”

Any doubt that newly elected Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger would put their names on a tax measure in their first meeting vanished when Hahn said she was proud that the vote — still two hours off — would be “the first motion I will have my name attached to.”

At one point Hahn asked Ansell why the measure wasn’t designed to be permanent when the need for the funds would most likely continue.

Ansell said the sunset mechanism was designed to give the county’s voters a chance to judge the success of the programs and decide whether they deserved continued funding. 

Hundreds of supporters of the measure — many color-coded in T-shirts representing their affiliations — filled the board hearing room and three overflow rooms for the first meeting of the two new supervisors.

During more than two hours of public comment, no speakers opposed the measure. Two, representing a business group and the city of Pasadena, asked the board to be careful that the funds are distributed equitably.

As the hearing teetered on the edge of open celebration, board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas zig-zagged from calling for the audience to suppress its applause to calling out the names of homeless organizations, prompting their adherents to stand, wave their arms and scream.

Many, representing nonprofit agencies that work with the homeless, used their two minutes to describe their struggles dealing with a problem that exceeds their resources.

After several dozen planned speakers had had their say, Ridley-Thomas allowed a couple of dozen impromptu speakers to come forward, pleading with them to say just “yeah or nay” so the board could meet a 3 p.m. deadline on another item.

“Come 2:45, hell or high water, someone is going to make a motion,” he admonished.

But they kept coming.

Several were formerly homeless people who tearfully described their road to stability.

“I just wanted to say I love you,” one woman told the board. “I’m just so happy. Let’s do it.”

The public comment became an open display of the formidable coalition that will now go to work to get it approved.

Support came from labor unions, veterans groups, churches and synagogues, business organizations and dozens of nonprofit groups, including Heal the Bay and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) delivered an endorsement by video. USC President C.L. Max Nikias sent his support by emissary.

Other backers include the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the California Community Foundation, all of which supported the successful campaign for Proposition HHH, the housing bond measure approved in November. The measure easily won with 77% of the vote. 

doug.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATdoug

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