Long Beach’s police, fire unions helped fund survey supporting sales tax measure

Long Beach police patch

A survey that set the stage for a sales tax measure on the June 7 ballot was funded in part by Long Beach’s police and fire unions, who stand to see their ranks increase if the measure passes.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia has said all along the 10-year sales tax increase would be used to bolster public safety personnel in the city, along with fix neglected infrastructure like streets and sidewalks. Garcia also helped to finance the survey by drawing upon his officeholder committee’s account.

“I didn’t want to use city dollars to do it,” Garcia said Thursday. “We raised the money to do it ourselves.”

Long Beach campaign finance law allows the mayor and other elected officials to collect contributions for officeholder accounts that can be used for expenses related to their duties, but not their own election campaigns. City Attorney Charles Parkin said he vetted Garcia’s decision to spend his committee’s money on the survey and determined it was a proper use of funds.

Garcia did not recall offhand how much the survey cost. Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association, said his group chipped in about $13,000.

The Los Angeles-based polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates conducted the survey by interviewing 500 landline and cell phone interviews in mid-January. The mayor’s office released a summary of survey results in February showing 63 percent of respondents would be willing to vote for a tax increase after hearing arguments against the ballot measure.

Long Beach Community College District officials hired the same firm to assess whether potential voters would support a bond measure for campus upgrades. That survey, conducted in December, found 65 percent of likely voters may support a ballot measure and the college district’s board voted in late February to place an $850 million bond measure on the June ballot.

The college district’s survey cost $33,000, which it paid for out of its own funds, according to district spokeswoman Stacy Toda.

THE SALES TAX PROPOSAL

If city voters approve the sales tax measure, and there are no other changes to the tax rate, Long Beach’s sales tax rate would rise to 10 percent for six years. The rate would decrease to 9.5 percent during the next four years before reverting back to the 9 percent level.

Long Beach’s council discussed the prospect of a sales tax — or any tax — in January, about one month after having earlier received a city engineer’s report asserting Long Beach has some $2.8 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs over the next decade.

Garcia said he viewed a sales tax as the most fair option among alternatives, which included raising the utility users tax or imposing a parcel tax.

Long Beach’s electorate voted in 2000 to halve the city’s utility tax and a parcel tax would only affect property owners, and Garcia said he wanted to honor voters’ past decision. He prefers a tax that would be paid by everyone who buys goods in Long Beach, not just property owners.

City Hall has projected that a 1 percent increase in the sales tax rate could bring in $48 million in additional revenues each year.

The mayors’ championing of the ballot measure followed his declaration during the State of the Cityaddress that he wants the police department to have sufficient funding to reorganize its command structure so that separate patrol divisions would be able to focus on protecting Long Beach’s southern and western divisions.

Those areas have been assigned to a single patrol division since 2012. That was the same year when the fire department lost its engine assigned to Station 8, which is in Belmont Shore — another cut Garcia says he wants to reverse.

“They know that the restorations we are making are the restorations that the leadership of their departments have recognized as their top priorities,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the Police Department would need to hire roughly 10 new officers to re-establish its southern patrol division. The Fire Department would need to hire 12 additional firefighters to restore an engine company at Belmont Shore.

The mayor further said adding an engine company to Belmont Shore would also improve responders’ ability to save adjacent neighborhoods, since there would likely be fewer occasions when personnel assigned to eastern or central neighborhoods would need to roll out to emergencies in Belmont Shore or Naples Island.

Long Beach officials have not revealed which infrastructure projects may be accomplished if voters agree to the tax. Garcia said that’s coming some time in the next few weeks as city staffers are determining what could be done with the new revenues that may result from a tax increase.

“We’re going to take care of all of the worst streets and sidewalks and alleys,” he said.

If voters pass the tax increase, current or future Long beach officials would be legally able to spend the resulting revenues on any aspect of city business, although the City Council has adopted a resolution declaring its intent to devote any new dollars to infrastructure and public safety.

The mayor and council also are backing a companion ballot measure that would place 1 percent of any new tax revenues into a rainy day fund.

UNIFORMED PERSPECTIVES

In interviews, the leaders of the city’s police and fire unions said they see a potential sales tax increase as a viable option to enhance their departments’ capabilities.

Fire union president Rex Pritchard said new data on the department’s capabilities show an urgent need for new resources.

For example, the data show that in 2005, fire personnel’s average response time to medical emergencies or fires clocked in at 5 minutes and 29 seconds, with 73 percent of responses arrived within the National Fire Protection Association’s standard of 6 minutes.

By 2015, however, the department’s average response times had grown to 6 minutes and 16 seconds, with only 46 percent of responses being made in fewer than 6 minutes.

“We’re looking at the immediate issue that needs to be resolved,” Pritchard said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

James, the police union’s president, said rank-and-file officers trust police Chief Robert Luna’s judgement to decide how any new funds may be used to increase police services.

He said combining the department’s southern and western divisions into a single megadivision has overwhelmed supervisors and dispatchers, and that he would expect splitting the division into its prior boundaries would improve response times and community policing.

James also said the department’s staffing level has made it virtually impossible for officers to schedule vacation time, since it’s hard for the department to assign an officer to a vacationing colleague’s shift without having to pay overtime.

Long Beach’s budget had funding allocated for roughly 1,000 sworn officers in January 2009. James said staffing now is closer to 800 officers.

“There is no way to come close to restoring the level of service we had without some increase in revenue,” he said.

City government contracts with the police and fire unions expire at the end of September. James acknowledged that officers will be asking for pay increases, which is planned even if no one was talking about a tax increase, let alone whether Long Beach voters pass the June ballot measure.

Whereas Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and other safety workers are set to receive a 10 percent pay raise over three years, James said Long Beach police have only obtained a 1 percent raise since 2009 and want a more competitive pay level.

“We’re going after raises with or without the revenue enhancement,” he said.

Staff writer Gregory Y. Yee contributed to this report

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