South Gate Council Considers 5% Utility Tax to Fund Police

Times Staff Writer

Residents this spring may be asked to vote on a new utility tax that would pay for expansion of the city Police Department.

The proposed utility users' tax of up to 5% would apply to residential and commercial bills for telephones, electricity, gas and water and would require voter approval by a 2 to 1 margin, officials said.

The money would be earmarked for 12 additional police officers and departments employees and a computer system. The tax could become a permanent financing method for an 88-member department that has faced increasing operating costs while it has remained the same size for more than a decade.

Population Up 27%

During that decade, however, the city's population has grown by 27% to 74,152 and demands for police service have increased dramatically, officials said.

The proposed tax is being studied by a citizens' committee, which is to submit a report to the City Council this month. By law, the council could approve the tax by majority vote, if the money were to be deposited in the city's general fund. However, council members and members of the citizens' committee have discussed setting up a special fund to benefit only the Police Department, which under Proposition 13 would require a two-thirds vote of residents.

"We just don't feel we should implement a utility tax without the will of the people," said council member Henry Gonzalez, explaining the council's position of favoring voter approval on the issue.

The proposal already has drawn opposition from the city's Chamber of Commerce, which said businesses could be hurt by it.

Gonzalez requested the citizens' study as an interim step to the council's placing the measure on the ballot.

Gonzalez, a former mayor, predicted the tax would be approved because the city has a relatively small number of registered voters. Only 19,645 residents are registered to vote. Those voters tend to be the most politically active citizens and would favor increased police protection, Gonzalez said. He added that the city has more than 4,000 members of a Community Block Watch program, all of whom he said are "very supportive" of the police department.

Called 'Frightening'

Meanwhile, John P. Donovan Jr., manager of industrial relations at Reisner Metals Inc., said officials at the steel forging company estimate an additional 5% tax on his firm's utility bills would be "frightening."

Donovan, also vice president of the city Chamber of Commerce, said chamber members oppose the tax because "there are several industries in this area that are heavy users."

To address concerns raised by Donovan and other local businessmen, city officials are considering a maximum cap on the tax for both industry and residents on fixed incomes.

City officials said they want to be sensitive to the needs of local business because the city already has lost major industries, including General Motors Corp. and Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

The impact of the proposed tax on residential users is uncertain, however, because city officials have not yet prepared cost estimates.

Statistics kept by the state Public Utilities Commission for residents in the Los Angeles area show that a 5% increase would mean a $2.67 tax on an average monthly gas bill of $53.43, $1.47 for an average monthly electricity bill of $29.41 and 41 cents on a monthly phone bill of $8.25 for local service. No figures were available for water.

Officials say the tax is needed to pay for new police employees and equipment and that they have no other way to finance the department expansion.

Daniel Sink, a city accountant who is vice chairman of the residents' committee studying the proposal, said the city has run out of funding alternatives.

"The problem is our community is increasing in numbers, but we have no more money for police," Sink said.

While the city's police department cost $2.1 million to run in the 1973-74 fiscal year, the current budget for the department is $6.4 million, according to Police Chief Norman Phillips.

Of that $6.4 million, $1.1 million comes from the federal government, the entire allocation of the city's federal revenue-sharing funds. The federal program may be cut or eliminated as part of the drive to reduce the federal deficit.

New Staff, Computers

Phillips said the utility tax is needed to hire five police officers and seven civilian employees next year as well as pay for a computer system.

"I don't have the manpower" to handle the city's growing population, Phillips said in an interview. The department handles all police records manually, and as a result, officials do not know whether its officers are being deployed most efficiently, he said.

Phillips said the city has handled its shortage of officers by reducing services in the past. The department no longer picks up most crime reports from residents in person but has them mailed in, he said.

The department uses two civilian employees to patrol the city for parking violations. This year, they generated $180,000 in fines, but if the department could employ two more persons on parking patrol, as Phillips has proposed, estimates are the department would more than double the amount of fines it could collect.

Despite its shortage of officers, Phillips said, arrests of adults and juveniles for major crimes has decreased from a peak of 4,239 in 1981 to 3,879 in 1984, including arrests for murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, grand theft auto and larceny.

The city has increased its civilian police staff from 23 in 1973-74 to 35 in 1984-85, Phillips said.

The civilian employees, who cost the city less than police officers, have been doing work formerly done by police, including parking enforcement, dispatching and some staffing at the city jail.

While a police officer at the top scale costs the city $29,160 a year in salary and $15,140 in benefits--a total of $44,300--a civilian employee costs $20,616 in salary and $6,050 in benefits, a total of $26,666, Phillips said.

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