Huntington Beach city clerk calls for fixes to ballot arguments

The Huntington Beach city clerk has asked the proponents and opponents of a controversial property tax ballot measure to correct and clarify some of their arguments.

Enough signatures were gathered to place the measure on the November ballot to revoke a pre-1978 public safety employee retirement tax, which levies $15 per $100,000 of assessed property value and brings the city's general budget $4.2 million a year, according to city records.

Most of City Clerk Joan Flynn's objections targeted the pro side of the argument. In a letter to resident Frank Morrell, who led the effort along with Mayor Don Hansen and authored the argument in favor of revoking the tax, Flynn pointed out two inaccuracies and said a correction is needed or the city could be challenged in court.

The argument indicated, in part, that "every other Orange County city makes their employees pay their own fair share of their retirement."

If, by fair share, Morrell meant their full contribution, then that's not accurate, Flynn said in the letter. It is more factual to say that some or even many Orange County city employees pay their full share, she said.

Morrell's argument also indicated that if Huntington Beach's employees were paying their fair share, the city would have enough money to pay for extra police and firefighters, and even further beautify the city, and protect its coastal shores and wetlands.

"This is a false statement," Flynn wrote in the letter. "The tax can only be collected for the purpose of funding retirement costs."

Even if the employees were paying their full share, eliminating the property tax would leave the city with about $1.3 million in debt, Flynn said, and the city would remain contractually obligated to pay the retirement costs.

Flynn also asked the opposing side to clarify one of its statements. Council members Connie Boardman, Keith Bohr and Joe Shaw wrote the argument against the measure.

One part indicates that the employees will be paying their full share of the retirement costs in the next two years. While that has been the city's goal, and employees have gradually increased their contributions during negotiations, the two-year target is not set in stone.

"There's nothing legally binding the employees to comply with this timeline, thus the statement is not true," Flynn said in the letter.

Flynn asked both sides to make the revisions and turn them in by end of day Friday.

Both sides said Friday that they have corrected and clarified the statements in question.

The city has collected the tax since 1966, and the money goes toward the retirement benefits of employees who were hired before 1978, when Proposition 13 was passed.

Those in favor of eliminating the tax have said the city can increase it at any time, but that's only partially true. The council, by law, can't collect more than $0.0493 per $100 of assessed value. The council this month took extra measures to limit how much it can collect and voted to cap the amount at $0.015 on every $100, which is what is currently being levied.

If the measure passes, the city will face more cuts, including the elimination of five police officers, the crime scene investigation unit, the Fire Department's hazmat response, two branch libraries and hours at the Central Library, according to both the fire and police chiefs and the city manager.

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