Cities, low on cash, hope ballot measures change their fortunes
GUADALUPE, Calif. — Vacant, century-old storefronts stand as bricks-and-mortar tombstones in this once-booming little farm town on California’s Highway 1, where flatbeds piled with strawberries rumble by, rarely having to hit the brakes at crosswalks.
Thrashed by the recession, officials here ran out of ways to cut expenses or boost tax revenue. So the town named after the patron saint of Mexico is throwing a Hail Mary.
The mayor and City Council crafted a Nov. 6 ballot measure to change the city’s name to Guadalupe Beach — even though the Pacific Ocean is nearly five miles to the west.
“We have to do something,” Mayor Lupe Alvarez said. “It’s for the tourism that we hopefully attract. It’s for landing that first hotel ... and it won’t cost the taxpayers anything.”
Cities, counties and school districts across California are finding themselves in the same financial pinch, but on election day most will rely on a less creative tactic. They’re asking voters to pry open their wallets.
From Arcata to Coronado Island, local governments have placed more than 230 revenue-raising proposals on the ballot: school bonds, sales taxes, utility taxes, parcel taxes, hotel taxes, soda taxes, abandoned-car taxes and business taxes.
More than 100 school and community college districts are pitching bond measures. Almost three dozen cities and counties are asking voters to hike local sales taxes. Measure J in Los Angeles County would extend a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects until 2069.
“Everybody has been impacted by the recession,” said Michael Coleman, a finance advisor for the League of California Cities who monitors local ballot measures statewide.
Guadalupe faced tough times before the downturn. Even the Far Western Tavern, Guadalupe’s best-known saloon and home of the “famous bull’s-eye steak,” packed up and moved down the road to Orcutt in search of better fortunes.
Between a deteriorating tax base and Sacramento’s raids on local funds, this northern Santa Barbara County city with a meager $3-million yearly budget found itself $450,000 in the hole. City leaders furloughed employees, froze vacancies in the 12-officer Police Department and eliminated overtime in the three-man Fire Department. It wasn’t enough.
A general tax increase was out of the question, the mayor said. The town’s 7,000 residents, most of them farmworkers or ranchers, overwhelmingly rejected a hike in the utility tax two years ago.
So the campaign for Guadalupe Beach was born. Never mind that it’s 10 minutes away from the nearest beach: the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, a filming location where the sets for Cecil B. DeMille’s silent “The Ten Commandments” are entombed in sand.
“It’s crazy. This is Guadalupe. It’ll always be Guadalupe. Nothing will change that,” said Harry Masatani, 86, the owner of a corner grocery that’s been in his family for 90 years. “Am I supposed to open a dune buggy shop?”
Local governments are struggling to make ends meet for a variety of reasons, including escalating pension costs and downturns in property- and sales-tax revenues, Coleman said. They were hit again by the state’s elimination of local redevelopment agencies, which many cities relied on to help pay for street maintenance, housing programs and other government services.
The number of local revenue-raising ballot measures this November is in line with past elections, Coleman said. What’s different is that local governments need the money for essentials. In past years, many initiatives helped pay for extras: new schools, parks and other community enhancements.
“We’re seeing more general-purpose taxes,” Coleman said. “Things have been cut so deeply over the past couple years because of the recession, cutting street maintenance, police and fire services…. There’s no other place to go when things get really, really tight.”
Elementary schools in Santa Fe Springs stopped buying new textbooks years ago. Now many are more than a decade old. Computers in the classrooms and library are so outmoded they can’t handle new software, said Phillip Perez, superintendent of the Little Lake City School District, which also covers Norwalk.
So the district placed two measures on the Nov. 6 ballot. The first is an $18-million bond measure to renovate classrooms and upgrade science and computer labs. The other proposes a $48 parcel tax to pay for new textbooks, support art and music programs and keep schools well maintained.
“We’re putting the decision to our local voters,” Perez said. “We’ve trimmed and trimmed and trimmed. They know we’ve been fiscally prudent.”
Carlotta Valladares, 62, lives a few blocks from one of the district schools, Jersey Avenue Elementary. The retired nurse plans to vote for both measures even though her husband is out of work.
“My kids are grown, but I think this is good for everybody,” Valladares said while decorating her front yard with skeletons for Halloween. “The kids need all the help we can give them.”
Valladares’ support is not unique, even among people scrambling to make ends meet, said John Fairbank, a pollster whose Santa Monica company has consulted on more than 40 local measures in this election. Voters realize that cities and schools are being squeezed; throughout the recession, about two-thirds of local initiatives passed, he said. Even voters who are sour on the statewide tax measures tend to favor revenue initiatives close to home.
“As the distrust of state leadership continues,” Fairbank said, “the local measures are seen as taking local control.”
In many cases, local ballot measures offer assurances that the state government can’t snatch the money. In Carpinteria, a ballot measure to raise the hotel tax by 2 percentage points states that there will be “no money going to Sacramento.” Fairbank said such clauses started becoming common in local initiatives in 2010.
A few local tax measures are tailored to influence people’s behavior. El Monte and the Bay Area city of Richmond, for example, are proposing a “soda tax” amid concerns about childhood obesity.
And in Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, city officials crafted an “excessive residential electricity users tax.” It is, in effect, a way to target marijuana “grow houses” that cultivate the weed indoors with energy-sucking lamps. If voters pass it, residences that use “excessively high” amounts of electricity — described as more than three times that of the average household — will be slapped with a 45% tax on the excess usage.
Vice Mayor Shane Brinton, a self-described progressive Democrat who supports the legalization of marijuana, called grow houses “illegitimate and irresponsible,” saying they avoid taxes, waste energy and escape regulation. “It’s driving up the costs of our housing, and it’s making our neighborhoods less safe,” Brinton said.
The utility tax initially would collect an estimated $1.2 million a year. Environmentalists support it because it promotes energy conservation. Conservatives support it in the hope that it will drive out marijuana growers.
There is no organized opposition.
Times staff writer Richard Marosi in San Diego contributed to this report.
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