Commentary: Measure Z invites community solution

While Measure Z clearly removes a tax, the issue is indeed far from simple. But first, the easier part to understand: Currently residents and businesses alike subsidize the employee portion of our public employee pensions though an assessment included as a part of our property tax bill. This means the city pays their agreed-upon contribution and the employee pays their agreed-upon contribution minus that which we supply through our property tax bill.

There are several issues at work here. The first is that our property taxes should not be going toward anybody's pensions. That's not what they are meant for, and that can be rectified through passage of Measure Z. The second issue is that what the city contributes versus what the employee contributes is no longer fair or sustainable. I know we have legally binding contracts, but we also have cities going broke and people losing jobs because of those contracts and the economy they now exist in. Third, not only is the distribution unfair, we compound the unfairness by further reducing the employee contribution by our subsidy through our property tax assessment.

Issues one and three can be solved through passage of Measure Z. Passing Measure Z allows for the opportunity to address issue two through open-minded discussion and dialogue concerning the contracts for our public employees. In addition, cities must rethink the way they deliver services to their communities. It isn't about cutting jobs and services. It's about generating new revenues by creating a climate for business growth and expansion. It's about creating new partnerships, public and private, city and city. We all need to be at the table, giving in the short term to reap gains in the long term.

The current cost is $75 to $100 for the average resident homeowner with an assessed value of $500,000. But what we forget is that business is paying the bulk of this added assessment as well. A business owner pays taxes on the assessed value of their property, plus they pay on the assessed value of their inventory as well. That $100 is a drop in the bucket compared to what many or most businesses pay in property taxes, which then dramatically increases the contribution to public employee pensions.

So we now know that passing Measure Z will eliminate a tax and create an opportunity to begin putting our financial house in order. It, in itself, does not create pension reform, but if looked at correctly, it creates an opportunity. But what happens in the meantime? We do know for sure that if Measure Z passes, it will create an almost immediate $4.2-million hole in the city's budget, year after year, until a solution is found.

This reality is a bit unnerving and certainly explains why many are worried over library closures, police and fire professionals losing their jobs, art centers going away, and a host of other scary scenarios. But if we as a community insist that we not do business as usual, that we actually look at this as the opportunity it is, we can make this work and at the same time send a message as to what kind of community we really are.

In the short term, I believe the City Council and city staff can find the $4.2 million, and it would be a huge step backward if even one police or fire professional lost his job over this. In fact, if anything, we need to invest in even more officers on the street. The sooner we get our current and new development projects online, the quicker the additional tax base will begin funding those needed dollars.

I have no desire to close any public facility or discontinue any public service. But to succeed, we need to separate the wants from the needs. Wants quickly become unnecessary if needs are not being met, for example public safety.

In Huntington Beach, this all starts by voting yes on Measure Z. Let's take the stand and end the tax, realize we are all going to have to give to get and then get this job done. This amazing community deserves the very best effort from all of us, a "we" effort not a "me" effort. The Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce stands ready to partner in this effort. The alternative we face is not an option.

JERRY L. WHEELER is the president and chief executive of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce

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