ELECTIONS / BALLOT MEASURES : Voters' OK Would Release Funding for Mass Transit : City Issues: Oak Park weighs annexation, Port Hueneme to decide fate of police, and Santa Paula wants money for library.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County voters will decide June 7 whether to approve a ballot measure that would enable the county to tap into a special state gas-tax fund that would bring in $1 million annually to pay for local mass transit projects.

At the same time, residents in Oak Park will help determine the future of their community by deciding whether to join the city of Thousand Oaks, become an independent city or remain a county jurisdiction.

In Port Hueneme, voters will face a special property tax needed for the city to continue operating its own Police Department. And in Santa Paula, residents will be asked to approve a ballot measure that would nearly double the operating hours of the city library.

These are the only four local ballot measures voters will face in the June 7 election, which will also include a number of local, state and congressional races. Election officials predict that less than 45% of the county's 335,702 registered voters will cast ballots.

The countywide transportation measure--known as Measure X--guarantees that a portion of the gas-tax money now collected by the state from each county for mass transit projects will be returned to the region, officials said. Last year, the so-called Transit Capital Improvement Program doled out about $100 million to local jurisdictions across California.

"It's not a tax," Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said of Measure X. "It simply allows the state to send money back to us that it already collects from the county. It's a no-brainer."

Although Measure X would require a $1-million matching fund, Gherardi said the county's share would come from what the county and its 10 cities already spend on mass transit projects.

"It won't take money away from other programs," she said.

Money from the gas-tax fund could help pay for rail stations, bus stations or other transit projects, such as the proposed transportation center in Thousand Oaks, Gherardi said. The money, however, cannot be used for operations involving mass transit services.

Gherardi said the county did not previously seek access to the funds because the county qualified for other state funds to pay for its transit projects. Also, she said, the county's share of the fund in the past would not have been large enough to warrant the time and expense of placing a measure on the ballot for voter approval.

But in recent years the fund has grown, prompting the county to take action to put the measure on the ballot. For example, officials said, the county could have received $1.2 million in the 1992-93 fiscal year.

"If we don't pass this, we're still going to be paying into the fund. But we won't be getting any of the money back," Gherardi said.

There has been no formal opposition to Measure X, nor is there a ballot argument against the initiative.

Meanwhile, in Oak Park, voters will help decide the future of their small unincorporated community. They will be asked if they would prefer annexing to Thousand Oaks, incorporating as a city or remaining a county jurisdiction.

Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, whose 2nd District includes Oak Park, wrote the ballot argument in favor of annexation, saying it would greatly improve services for the community of 10,000.

VanderKolk said Thousand Oaks residents now collect the equivalent of $124 per resident in taxes that can be used for city services, while the corresponding amount Ventura County has available in the unincorporated area is $47.

The supervisor said that with the state continuing to siphon money away from counties, Oak Park might see even fewer tax dollars spent in their community in the future.

"People in Oak Park need to realize that being part of an unincorporated area is not the best place to be, because the county does not have the money to provide many of the essential services people say they want," she said.

With annexation, VanderKolk said Oak Park would receive more police protection services. She said residents, who now pay a $55 annual fee to use the Thousand Oaks Library, would have free access to the library while still being able to pursue plans to build their own facility.

Also, VanderKolk said she believed annexation would have no effect on Oak Park's ability to maintain its own school district, considered among the best in the county, or to remain within its current park district.

Despite VanderKolk's arguments, officials of the Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council, which advises the Board of Supervisors on local issues, say they believe annexation would result in a reduction of services. They argue that their community would just become a small segment of a large city and as a result would have less influence on decisions affecting Oak Park.

"If we become part of Thousand Oaks that means we have to do what the rest of the city does," said Ron Stark, a member of the MAC and a 28-year resident of Oak Park. "If that means they don't have any school-crossing guards, then we don't have any crossing guards. If that means there are no street sweepers, then we don't have street sweepers."

Although Thousand Oaks collects more in taxes for city services than Oak Park for its community, Stark said Thousand Oaks also has more expenses and a larger overhead. He said residents are also concerned about assuming some of the debt that may arise from the building of the $64-million Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks.

As for use of the city library, Stark said Oak Park still prefers to have its own library because "Thousand Oaks is too far to drive for our students."

"Twenty-three years ago, the county asked the residents of Oak Park if they wanted to annex to Thousand Oaks and at that time, they said no," Stark said. "I think this time they will do the same again."

Stark said while he prefers cityhood because "it's better to have the people who are governing you as close to home as possible," he believes the majority of Oak Park residents will want to remain an unincorporated community.

Across the county in Port Hueneme, residents there could determine whether the city keeps its Police Department or instead contracts with the county Sheriff's Department, which could result in a reduction in services, police officials say.

Measure Z asks Port Hueneme voters to levy a special tax in order to make up for a $500,000 funding gap needed to maintain current levels of police services in the city of 22,000.

If approved, homeowners would pay an additional $56 in taxes for police services; renters, $47; commercial and industrial businesses, $0.0250 per square foot, and owners of vacant property, $0.0083 per square foot.

Although there has been no major opposition to the measure, supporters of Measure Z acknowledge that any type of tax initiative is a hard sell, especially in a tough economy.

Moreover, Measure Z requires a two-thirds majority vote for approval. Since Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, there have been only three Ventura County cities that have met the law's 66.7% vote requirement to approve new local property taxes.

"That's what makes it so tough," said Detective Ken Dobbe, who is also a representative of a citizens committee campaigning for Measure Y, the Santa Paula library issue.

If Measure Z were to fail, Dobbe said the city would seriously consider contracting with the Sheriff's Department to help cut costs.

Currently, the Police Department is staffed by 19 law enforcement personnel, he said. Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Department has offered to provide about a dozen officers to patrol the city at an annual savings of $385,000, he said.

In addition to a decline in services, resident Valorie Morrison, also a member of the citizens committee for Measure Z, said the city would lose its anti-drug and gang prevention programs, use of its jail and its volunteer police reserve program.

"We would just lose too much," she said. "We have so many pluses right now, people don't realize it."

Despite the two-thirds majority vote required for passage, Morrison said she is confident that residents will approve the property tax.

"There might be two or three people in the city who don't want it," she said. "But this city is so pro-police."

In Santa Paula, voters will be asked to pass Measure Y, which would authorize the expenditure of already approved property taxes to benefit the city's Blanchard Community Library. The library is part of the Santa Paula Union High School Library District.

In November, local voters approved a $25 annual increase in property taxes to expand the operating hours of the library. The measure doubles--to $340,000--the amount of money the city can collect annually for library services.

But state tax laws require that local voters approve a spending limit for its library services before the new property taxes are appropriated for those services. The current annual spending limit is $455,000. Measure Y on the June ballot would increase that to $555,000, which under state law would remain in place for at least four years.

The spending limit exceeds the amount of money the library district collects in property taxes. The higher spending limit would allow for any additional revenues generated from future residential or commercial growth in the city during the four years, said Dan Robles, Santa Paula's head librarian.

If Measure Y is passed, the new library funds would be used to buy new materials and equipment as well as to increase the number of days and hours the library is open. The library is now open 18 hours a week. With the new funding, library hours would increase to 30 hours a week, Robles said.

If Measure Y fails, the library district would be forced to refund the $25 property tax to each property owner next year, and library services would continue to shrink, he said. A simple majority is required to approve Measure Y.

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