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City Council split on sales tax measure that could harm LCUSD parcel tax effort

La Cañada Flintridge City Hall
City Council members are considering a three-quarter cent sales tax increase that would raise $2.5 million in local annual revenue but might harm La Cañada Unified’s chances of passing a parcel tax in March 2020.
(File Photo)

City Council members were split Tuesday about placing a sales tax increase before voters in March 2020 when they learned it could potentially threaten the success of a La Cañada Unified parcel tax extension that would appear on the same ballot.

Their discussion followed a presentation from Los Angeles-based research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3), which delivered findings from a $30,000 survey conducted to gauge local interest in raising the city’s sales tax from 9.5% to 10.25%.

The move to push the rate to the maximum allowable limit — which could generate $2.5 million in annual local revenue — is a strategic one. Officials believe it could preempt future increases being eyed by county and state agencies that would push La Cañada to its state-mandate cap.

“To have a situation where [sales tax] comes back as 100% is an unusual opportunity,” said Councilwoman Terry Walker, who noted the city currently receives just 1% of the 9.5% levied.

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At first blush, however, locals don’t seem too keen on the idea.

FM3 Vice President Adam Sonenshein said his firm surveyed 374 La Cañada Flintridge voters in late August and determined while 70% of respondents believe the city is “headed in the right direction,” only 45% supported a sales tax increase.

Fifty percent said they’d oppose such a measure, with 33% indicating they’d “definitely” vote against it. Sonenshein said opinions seemed to correlate with voters’ perception of the city’s need for funding.

“[If] they think things are going well with the city, they don’t necessarily understand the need for this measure,” he said. “The sense of this [being] our opportunity to capture local revenue, that’s a little more complex than most voters are thinking about on a daily basis.”

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Opinions shifted slightly after respondents learned funds would remain local and could be used to bolster public safety, respond to disasters and improve road conditions. Once presented with those facts, support climbed to 56%.

But given the survey’s 6.2% margin of error, it’s unclear whether the measure could garner the simple majority needed to pass.

Further, FM3’s survey data showed if a sales tax increase were on the same ballot as a $450 parcel tax extension being floated by La Cañada Unified School District, voters may be inclined to vote against one or the other, or both.

“The presence of a parcel tax measure for the school district is harmful to the city’s measure, although it’s hard to determine the exact degree,” Sonenshein said. “Similarly, there’s the potential that a city sales tax measure could jeopardize the viability of the school district’s parcel tax.”

Surveyors found the 61% of voters who showed initial support for the LCUSD parcel tax declined to 56% after a robust discussion of the need for a sales tax hike. The parcel tax requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Mayor Pro Tem Greg Brown said he had no desire to compete with LCUSD for funding.

“[Given] the potential to kill them both, and in particular hurt the schools, I’m not willing to support moving forward on that, even at the expense of the city revenues,” Brown said.

Councilman Jon Curtis wondered aloud whether both the city and school district measures might be marketed together for their positive local impact.

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Walker said she’d support pursuing the city measure to realize a rare opportunity to increase local revenue, a chance that unlike LCUSD’s tax — which could be placed before voters in November 2020 — will not come again until March 2022.

“It’s close — and so if we have that level of interest, I feel it would be remiss on the part of the council not to bring it to the full city and have everybody give their input,” she said.

City Manager Mark Alexander said LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette indicated the district was moving forward with plans to place the parcel tax extension on the March 2020 ballot and was “not definitive” about whether the board would be willing to hold off until November of next year.

He recommended council members discuss the matter with school board members before a Nov. 5 council meeting, at which point they can ultimately decide the fate of the sales tax measure before a Dec. 6 ballot language submission deadline.

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