Contentious Plan for Utility Tax Revived : Duarte: Proposal for a 3% levy had led opponents to start a recall drive against mayor. Council now wants to vote on issue after a public hearing.

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In a flip-flop that has some taxpayers steaming, the Duarte City Council has resurrected a proposal for a 3% utility tax that it removed from the November ballot earlier this year.

But instead of putting the issue before city voters, the council now says it plans to decide the issue itself after holding a public hearing next month.

The council says it has no other way to make up an annual budget shortfall of about $500,000 without resorting to widespread layoffs or elimination of city services.

But some residents aren't buying it.

"We've been double-crossed," said David Covert, a leader of the Duarte Taxpayers Group. "They deprived the citizens of a democratic say about this tax. It's like they believe that citizens don't know what's good for the city and they do."

The 3-2 vote, taken Sept. 13, was opposed by Councilwomen Ginny Joyce and Margaret E. Finlay, who said they felt voters should decide the issue.

"There is not a clear-cut consensus. . . . We need to put it out to a vote," Joyce said.

The tax, which would run for five years, is expected to cost the average household $7 a month by raising water, electricity, telephone and cable television bills, said Michael Yelton, city finance director.

"I am not in favor of the tax, but I am not in favor of cutting services," said Councilman James D. Kirchner. "Rather than face the financial destruction of this city, we will have to impose the tax."

Duarte has already made $880,000 in program cuts this year and laid off two employees. The city has also increased fees for business permits and assessments for lighting and landscaping.

"I'm not naive. I know we will have to face the music for this . . . but I am comfortable it's the best decision to preserve this community," said Councilman John R. Fasana, who supports the tax.

The utility tax controversy began earlier this year, when the council announced it would raise taxes via a council vote. That angered the taxpayers group, which initiated a recall drive against Mayor Finlay.

To avert the recall action, the council agreed to put the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. But one day before the ballot was finalized, a council majority of Kirchner, Fasana and Councilman Phillip R. Reyes voted to remove the initiative and instead began using reserves to make up the revenue shortfall.

In the past five months, all the council members except Fasana have changed their position on the tax.

The taxpayers group says it plans to fight back. Member Lino Paras said the group may launch another recall drive against council members.

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