A proposal to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the June ballot is encountering early resistance in Orange County's political circles as three city councils immediately turned thumbs down on a request by county chief executive William J. Popejoy to embrace the measure.
Only hours after county supervisors took the first giant step toward putting a tax hike up for a vote, Garden Grove's City Council went on record in unanimously opposing the proposed increase from 7.75% to 8.25%. "It's laying our problems today on our children's backs," Mayor Bruce A. Broadwater said.
Yorba Linda unanimously rejected Popejoy's request, made in a letter sent last week to city councils and schools districts, that a ballot measure be endorsed. Councilman Mark Schwing won scattered applause from the audience during a City Council meeting Tuesday when he suggested the council consider a resolution "just the opposite" of Popejoy's request.
"I do not think residents should even be considering a tax increase until those who may be guilty of wrongdoing in all of this have been charged and brought to trial," Schwing said.
The Laguna Niguel City Council discussed Popejoy's request Tuesday night and rejected it. Councilwoman Janet Godfrey said she and her colleagues have strong opposition to any tax increase and plan to express their opinions to county officials individually.
Although county officials hoped that cities would endorse placing the tax on the ballot, several political leaders said in interviews Wednesday that they considered the tax proposal a matter for county government to resolve and don't plan to get involved.
"I am not in favor of taxing the people at all to cover up the mistakes of (former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert) Citron and the Orange County supervisors," said Seal Beach Councilwoman Marilyn Bruce Hastings. "People are already taxed up to the capacity of being taxed. They don't need any additional taxes."
Popejoy proposed the half-cent sales tax increase last week, saying it was needed to help pull the county out of its financial troubles. The county declared bankruptcy on Dec. 6 after it lost $1.7 billion belonging to the county and about 200 investors in risky investments.
A half-cent increase, effective in January next year if approved by a majority of county voters, would generate about $130 million annually and would be used to back about $700 million in new loans.
While not formally endorsing the tax increase and issuing some caveats, all five supervisors said Tuesday that they intended to place the measure on the June 27 ballot. The board will take a final vote on the proposal next Tuesday.
County officials were not without some support after the supervisors stepped back from their months-long resistance to even considering a tax increase. The La Palma City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution in support of placing the tax before voters. But council members stressed that the vote does not mean they support the tax hike.
"I'm suggesting we put this on the ballot and let the people decide," said Mayor Wally D. Linn.
Margie Wakeham, a trustee with the Irvine Unified School District, said it is possible that the tax increase is the county's only option for digging out of the bankruptcy.
"I hate the idea of more taxes, but I don't think that we have too many alternatives because the reduction in services is going to be so severe," Wakeham said. "It's going to be what we have to do to maintain even a slightly reduced quality of life."
Some elected officials on Wednesday criticized supervisors for agreeing to place the tax hike on the ballot without taking a stand for or against a tax.
"You can't have it both ways and still call yourself a leader," said Irvine Councilwoman Paula Werner. "I think it's time (the supervisors) show some leadership and take a stand."
Other city officials argued that the county had turned to a tax increase before all other options were exhausted.
"A sales tax increase should only be a last resort," said Huntington Beach Councilman Dave Garofalo, who said he will oppose the tax proposal. "I would only support it only as a last-ditch effort."
Several city officials said the county shouldn't look to taxpayers to bail it out.
"As far as I'm concerned, the Board of Supervisors are laying this in the laps of the people," said said Councilman Gil Jones of San Juan Capistrano. "I think the people didn't create this and they shouldn't be penalized."
Added Mission Viejo Councilwoman Susan Withrow: "The taxpayers didn't get us into this mess. Why should they be asked to bail the county out?"
But other city and school leaders said the the board members deserved credit for political fortitude in moving to put a tax on the ballot.
Fountain Valley Councilman John Collins said the supervisors showed courage by moving to place the tax on the ballot.
"Finally, we (are getting) some leadership from our supervisors," Collins said. "It was a gutsy decision, with disregard for the political consequences."
Times correspondents Jeff Bean, Debra Cano, Leslie Earnest, Bert Eljera, Mimi Ko, Russ Loar, Frank Messina, Jon Nalick, Holly J. Wagner and Lesley Wright contributed to this report.
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