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Utility Tax Proposed to Fight Crime

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A group of community leaders wants to ask city voters to approve a special tax to pay for more police officers and help fight youth crime.

Called Safety 2000, the group plans to ask Oxnard’s City Council to consider placing a utility tax on the November ballot that could raise up to $5 million annually to hire new police officers and firefighters.

Squeezed by a $1.3-million shortfall, Oxnard’s proposed spending plan for fiscal 1996-97 includes no new money to bolster police or fire department ranks.

But with the city suffering nine homicides since Jan.1--six of them gang-related--Denise Paul, the group’s co-chair, said residents and businesses may have to chip in to curb crime.

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“We are at a crisis point,” said Paul, chairwoman of the Orchard Park Neighborhood Council and owner of an Oxnard real estate mortgage company. “The gang problem has gotten out of control. I realize that the city may not have the funding available. We have to find some way to get control of the city so that it is a safer place.”

Paul and her group--which consists of other neighborhood council members, business people and representatives of public safety associations--may approach city leaders as early as Tuesday about the tax proposal that she estimates would add between $5 and $10 to monthly utility bills to pay for increased public safety services.

The tax would cover wish-list items that the police and fire departments had asked the city to consider in the proposed budget, ranging from creating a permanent anti-gang task force to hiring a dozen new firefighters.

The spending plan the City Council received last week included money for expanded services only in the city’s recreation program. But the $300,000 grant for after-school and other youth programs requires city officials to find matching grants from other sources before the money is released.

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A special utility tax, Paul said, would raise the more than $500,000 needed to hire six new officers to set up the anti-gang task force. The tax would also provide the $180,000 needed to assign new officers to each of Oxnard’s three high schools. Another $250,000 would pay to station four officers among Oxnard’s eight junior high schools.

“It would enhance the safety of schools and improve the police response to youth crime,” Paul said.

Oxnard Fire Chief Randy Coggan said hiring a dozen new firefighters and buying new equipment at a cost of about $1.1 million would enable his department to cut its response time by 1 minute, to about 3 1/2 minutes.

“It would enable us to get more people on the scene when we need them,” he said.

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Coggan added that the city now has the same number of firefighters--77--that it employed in 1970, despite the population more than doubling since then.

Ray W. Gonzales, a small business owner and chairman of Fremont South Neighborhood Council, said he strongly supports asking residents to approve a special tax to pay for more police and firefighters.

“I think that gangs are affecting everyone, including businesses, tourism and the people who are the victims,” said Gonzales, who is not a member of Safety 2000. “I feel that everyone should chip in in some manner, shape or form.”

But Oscar C. Gonzalez, an Oxnard attorney and spokesman for the Mexican-American Bar Assn., called efforts to impose a special tax for increased public safety services misguided.

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“They are to be commended, but I think it is the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Gonzalez said. “I wish they would focus more on the causes of youth violence.”

Gonzalez said the group could instead levy a special tax to expand library hours or launch more youth programs.

The City Council is set to hold its first public hearing on its proposed spending plan Tuesday in City Council chambers and is expected to adopt next year’s budget June 18. Despite the lack of increases, more than half of the proposed $60.5-million spending plan is allocated to public safety.

If no new money materializes for the police and fire departments, Paul said, she hopes city residents will back the tax plan, which would include a five-year sunset clause.

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“At the end of the five years, if the people of the city agree that we have achieved our goal, the tax goes away,” Paul said. “It is not like it goes on forever.”


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