There was an attempt at last Tuesday's meeting of the Costa Mesa City Council to inject some strategic business thinking into the budget deficit challenge, but it died for lack of understanding.
Instead, residents witnessed desperation and disorientation as the council used its last fingers and toes to hold back the red ink piercing the city's budget dike.
There were no memorable moments at this meeting, unless you count Mayor Allan Mansoor breaking his "no-new-taxes" pledge as momentous. Even with his several votes to either raise taxes or to start discussions on raising taxes from increases in business licenses, solid waste franchise fees, animal license fees and green fees, Mansoor failed to support the one tax that will have the most positive impact on the city's fiscal health.
Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: Calling a payment for a service a "fee" doesn't hide the simple fact that it is a tax, because it is.
On the website created to support his campaign for Assembly, Mansoor wrote: "Now, during an economic crisis, the politicians say they want to raise taxes on small business owners and the middle class. I disagree. Instead of new middle class taxes, we need to demand our free-wheeling politicians need to get the job done right with the billions of dollars they already have. Instead of new taxes on small business owners Sacramento needs to get off their backs so that they can grow and bring jobs back to the state."
Last Tuesday, however, Mansoor voted to start discussions on raising taxes (er, fees) for small-business owners and in one case, for the green fees, he voted directly to raise them. So here's a new low for a politician: He has broken a campaign promise even before he is elected. So much for being a champion of the beleaguered middle class.
But wait, there's more. In a lively discussion over raising the transit occupancy tax (TOT), the one that is placed on hotel guests and which would provide the city with substantial more revenue — perhaps enough to avoid police and fire service reductions — Mansoor voted against a resolution to place the decision on the November ballot. Why? Probably because it is the only one that uses the word "tax" in its description.
The rest of his payment increase votes were for "fees."
Watching the hand-wringing over the TOT increase, one could help but wonder at the source of the council's collective inconsistency and timidity. After all, they had just voted (4-1 in most cases, with councilmember Leece voting against) to raise fees or start discussions to raise fees on services that would be paid for by residents. But when they discussed raising the TOT, not a dime of which would come from residents, they were weak and vacillating.
The only leadership on the TOT vote was shown by Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who argued logically to raise the tax in the November measure by 3 percent, as recommended by city staff, instead of the insufficient 2 percent that finally passed.
"Frankly, I think it has been fiscally irresponsible over the past several decades that there has not been a majority on this City Council that was will willing to increase revenues through the hotel bed tax that does not tax our residents," Foley said to much applause.
The TOT has not been raised in more than 20 years and Foley correctly pointed out that future councils are not likely to revisit another TOT increase for a long time.
Mansoor and others who pledge to vote against new taxes not only paint themselves into corners with this emotional approach to governing, they are acting irresponsibly. Further, they fail to understand the mind of the average voter.
The average voter, you see, understands that taxes are part of his responsibility as a citizen of the United States. He understands that those taxes pay for, among other things, a strong defense or police and fire protection or trash pickup. He doesn't mind paying his fair share and expects everyone else to do the same. What he minds is paying more when, as in this case, the city council has bungled the budget so badly over the past few years that tax increases are the only solution.