A majority of city officials across Ventura County on Wednesday reported disappointing sales tax revenues, indicating that the recession has yet to loosen its grip on the county.
An informal survey of city governments, which rely on sales taxes as their principal source of revenue, shows that cities are proceeding cautiously and bracing for another round of budget cuts.
"This is not the time to run out and do wild and crazy things," said Nancy Jioras, Ojai's accounting supervisor.
An exception to this gloomy picture was in Santa Paula, where the opening of a discount department store significantly boosted sales tax revenues--but still was short of what the city anticipated.
Other cities reported slight increases in sales tax revenues, but far short of what city officials wanted.
Jim Harrington, assistant director of the League of California Cities, said the Ventura County situation mirrors economic problems throughout the state. "At best, sales tax revenues will be flat for the current fiscal year," he said.
Taxable retail sales in California dropped 3% in the first three months of 1992, marking the state's fifth straight quarterly decline in consumer spending. For California cities, including the 10 in Ventura County, this translates into a fiscal crisis, Harrington said.
Of the 7.25% sales tax in Ventura County, cities get to keep 1%, he said.
In many cities, Harrington said, "library services, recreation services already have been eliminated. The next wave of cuts will start affecting critical services."
Here are some sales tax figures from Ventura County's 10 cities, which have different quarters and fiscal years:
"We're growing at a much slower rate than we would anticipate in a healthy economy," said Anita Bingham, the city's finance director. "We're still very cautious."
For the fourth quarter of 1991, which she said represented the latest figures available, sales tax revenues amounted to $875,000, up about 3% over the same period a year earlier.
"In our estimation, things are pretty flat and may have worsened more than we may have anticipated," said Allan Coates, finance director.
Coates is skeptical of economists who see the nation pulling out of the recession this year.
"We count the nickels and dimes when they come in," he said. "That's the only way we believe it."
Estimated sales tax revenues for the present fiscal year, which ends in June, will amount to about $500,000, slightly under last year's collection of $510,000, he said.
"Things are still pretty conservative here," Jioras said.
She estimated that sales tax revenues collected in the present fiscal year would amount to about $842,000 compared to $832,000 in the previous fiscal year.
Financial officer Marjorie George said she did not know why sales tax collections increased to $3.1 million during the fourth quarter of 1991 (the latest figures available) compared to $2.9 million for the same quarter in 1990.
"I believe (the economy) will be basically flat throughout 1992 and halfway through 1993," said Richard Hare, deputy city manager and finance director.
Hare reported that for the first quarter of this year, sales tax revenues totaled $209,000 versus $218,000 for the same period in 1991.
He forecast about a 4% drop in the city's sales tax revenues from the $850,000 that was collected in the previous fiscal year.
"We had a flat year in revenues, but with a new shopping center coming in, we expected it to increase," said Jim Hanks, finance director. "We should have had a larger increase than the one we did."
From Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, sales tax collections amounted to $166,000, barely topping the $165,000 collected for the year-earlier period, he said.
"We're still down from what we projected, but if it wasn't for the K mart store (which opened in July), we'd really be in trouble," said Cindy Kretzer, finance director. "The sales tax from a K mart would be peanuts to some cities, but it makes a big difference in a small town like Santa Paula."
From Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, Kretzer said sales tax revenues totaled $325,000, up 26% over the same period in the previous year.
Bob Heitzman, the city's deputy city manager, reported $1.7 million in sales tax revenues collected in the first quarter of this year, reflecting a 1.5% increase over the same year-ago period.
Bob Biery, finance director, reported a slight increase in sales tax revenues--$3.2 million for the fourth quarter last year compared to $3.1 million for same period a year earlier.
"We were one of the cities in the state that went up," he said.
Finance Director Terry Adelman said the city's drop in sales tax revenues--$3.4 million for the first quarter of 1992 compared to $3.6 million for the same period in 1991--was attributable in large part to a downturn in auto sales.
"A big part of our retail sales is auto sales, and we've lost a couple of auto dealers," he said.
Businesses in the county's unincorporated areas will generate about $4.5 million in sales taxes in the present fiscal year, which ends June 30, Assistant Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon projected. This is down about 17% compared to the previous fiscal year, he said.
Sales tax revenues represent about 1% of total Ventura County revenue. Of the 7.25% sales tax, the county keeps a quarter of a percent.
"We're not optimistic . . . that we're in a turnaround position," Mahon said.
Times staff writer Mack Reed and correspondent Patrick McCartney contributed to this story.