Two Los Angeles lawmakers on Tuesday abandoned the effort to put a half-cent sales tax hike for street and sidewalk repairs on the November ballot, saying more discussion would "only serve to strengthen" the proposal.
Councilmen Joe Buscaino and Mitchell Englander had spent the last three months reviewing a plan to generate $4.5 billion in new tax revenue, money that would go toward fixing the city's most deteriorated roads and walkways. It was the second time in two years that they had worked on a street tax proposal only to table it.
"Before asking voters to open their wallets, we owe it to them to thoroughly and exhaustively explore all options and to ensure that we are maximizing the use of every tax dollar we receive by operating as efficiently as possible," Buscaino said in a statement.
With the tax plan off the table, it's unclear how Mayor Eric Garcetti will pursue his "back to basics" agenda, which focuses on core services such as streets and sidewalks. More than 35% of L.A.'s streets, or 8,200 lane miles, are considered to be failing or near failing, receiving grades of D and F, according to a recent analysis. City officials said 40% of the city's sidewalks may be in need of repair.
Because of the city's precarious financial position, the mayor's budget offered only modest increases in overall city services for the coming year. Meanwhile, L.A. faces a potentially costly lawsuit from disability rights activists who say wheelchair users cannot travel successfully on the city's broken and buckled sidewalks.
Garcetti said at the start of the day that he still had not reached a decision on the sales tax proposal, which would have boosted the city's rate to 9.5%. After Buscaino and Englander made their announcement, he issued a statement saying he agreed with their decision not to push for more taxes.
"Right now, I am focused on reforming City Hall and making our departments more efficient so we can provide better services to our residents, including street repairs," he said.
Transportation advocates, among them some key Garcetti allies, had warned a sales tax measure this year could jeopardize efforts to win passage of a much bigger countywide transportation tax hike in 2016. But Garcetti said last week he was "not too troubled" about the idea of separate tax measures. "I get people's logic on it but I think voters look independently at these things," he said.
Buscaino and Englander attempted to put a bond measure for road repairs on the ballot two years ago, only to abandon the idea. At the time, lawmakers worried the bond proposal would jeopardize passage of a half-cent sales tax hike promoted as a way to end the city's financial crisis. The sales tax hike was rejected by voters.
Three months ago, the city's top policymakers recommended a November sales tax measure. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana portrayed it as the only way the worst streets and sidewalks would be repaired. Councilman Paul Koretz, one of the few to publicly support a November tax hike, shared that view.
"We haven't maintained our streets and our sidewalks for decades and it's about time we get cracking," Koretz said.
Buscaino and Englander held one public meeting on the tax proposal in April but declined to endorse it. Garcetti held off on taking a position. As the weeks passed, some at City Hall concluded the proposal was all but dead.
As recently as Monday, Buscaino spokesman Branimir Kvartuc said the fate of the proposal hinged on Garcetti's office. Kvartuc said the mayor's team was taking a cautious approach to the issue, including when the measure would be sent to the ballot. "I would say that we're in sort of a holding pattern, waiting to land the support," he said.
The decision to pull the plug drew a mixed response on Tuesday from Deborah Murphy, executive director and founder of the advocacy group Los Angeles Walks. Murphy expressed disappointment but said she also was unsure of the best strategy for finding the money.
"I leave it to the financing experts to make that decision," she said. "We just want our sidewalks fixed as soon as possible. We've been waiting a long time."