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Oxnard City Leaders Consider Special Tax to Fund Public Safety

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

City leaders pledged Tuesday to consider placing a measure on the November ballot that would impose a citywide tax to hire more police officers in response to deadly gang violence.

If city voters approved the measure by the two-thirds majority required, the special tax would add $5 to $10 to monthly utility bills, raising up to $5.2 million annually to put more cops and firefighters on the streets.

Facing a $1.3-million shortfall on top of an already tight budget, city officials included no increases for police and fire in the $60.5-million spending plan proposed May 22.

But some Oxnard residents and business leaders say the police and fire departments need the $5.2 million in increases requested earlier this year to combat youth crime and improve response to fires and other emergencies.

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After a group called Safety 2000 pitched the special-tax proposal during a Tuesday budget hearing, the City Council agreed to hold a study session on the idea during its June 11 meeting.

“I will be supportive of efforts to consider handling the gang problem and the issue of emergency response through a tax,” said City Councilman Dean Maulhardt.

City Councilman Andres Herrera said he would back placing a tax measure on the November ballot, as long as the levy raised money for specific uses--including making the Police Department’s anti-gang force permanent.

“I think it can make sense,” Herrera said.

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City leaders on Tuesday told staff to find an extra $200,000 in the proposed budget to keep the anti-gang squad in operation through the year. Money for the program was set to run out July 1.

Oxnard Police Chief Harold Hurtt said he would need about $500,000 in the first year to hire six officers to make the anti-gang task force permanent.

Under the proposed spending plan, only youth programs were slated to receive additional money--$300,000 to help pay for more after-school programs, a citywide job corps for youth and a volunteer recruitment effort.

“I realize the benefits of the after-school program cannot be underestimated,” said City Councilman Tom Holden. “But if we can’t fund our enforcement policy as well as prevention, it is not a win-win [situation].”

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Oxnard has logged nine homicides--six gang-related--since the beginning of the year, and police estimate the city has more than 3,400 gang members, twice as many as just three years ago.

“Please help us to gain control of our city,” said Denise Paul, co-chair of Safety 2000 and an Oxnard small-business owner. “Please do not let us lose the war due to lack of funds.” Despite the lack of new money for police and fire, the draft budget spares the departments from a cut of up to 3.1% that most other city programs face because of the shortfall.

More than half--about $30.1 million--of Oxnard’s proposed operating budget for fiscal year 1996-97 is already earmarked for public safety, including police and fire.

Members of Safety 2000 committee--including Oxnard Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Bernzott--say that in addition to supporting the anti-gang force, the tax would also generate money to station five new officers among Oxnard’s high schools and junior highs.

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The special tax would also pay to recruit a dozen firefighters and purchase new equipment, enabling Oxnard’s Fire Department to lower response times and improve service.

Despite the fact that Oxnard’s population has more than doubled since 1970, Fire Chief Randy Coggan told the City Council that the number of Oxnard firefighters--77--has not increased.

As proposed, the special tax includes a five-year sunset clause, which means the tax would be automatically eliminated in five years unless voters reapproved the levy.

If the budget process remains on schedule, city leaders could adopt the spending plan June 18. The City Council must decide by July 9 whether to place the special tax measure on the November ballot.

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City Atty. Gary Gillig said a special utility tax measure failed at the ballot six years ago, but that the 1990 measure sought to raise extra money for the city’s general fund and was not earmarked for specific uses.


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