Long Beach Sales Tax Hike Ballot Issue Campaign Heats Up

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Now that the Long Beach primary election is past, campaigns for and against the Measures A and B sales tax increase on the June 7 ballot have ramped up.

Bolstered with a war chest of more than $150,000 donated by the Long Beach Police Officers Association ($100,000 plus) and the Long Beach Firefighters Local 372 ($50,000 plus), Mayor Robert Garcia said the campaign now is in full swing. Garcia was joined by former mayors Bob Foster and Beverly O’Neill when he called for the temporary sales tax hike, and the campaign committee includes all three names.

“Two months ago I was joined by former Mayors Foster and O’Neill in calling on the people of Long Beach to invest in their city so we can restore the Police and Fire Departments and pave our streets and sidewalks,” Garcia said Tuesday in an email. “I am happy to announce the campaign to make that investment happen has started. Please follow the campaign on social media and check out the website (www.abetterlongbeach.com) to stay informed about this important issue.”

Garcia, and any other city employee, cannot campaign in favor of the proposition during work hours. The city also must avoid spending money promoting the proposition.

That’s where the police and fire unions stepped in. Both groups have active Political Action Committees and traditionally participate in city elections, including endorsing candidates. But because the ballot initiative involves raising money to provide more police and fire resources, their involvement has been questioned by opponents.

“Our officers pride themselves on the level of service they provide to the community, and their ability to do more with less over the past six or seven years,” POA President Steve James said. “We simply cannot afford to continue with these reductions at a time of rising crime…

“There are numerous people out in the community saying that this money is going to be used for other things (like raises for current employees), and that simply is not true. I am confident that our elected officials understand the commitment they are making to the community by asking for this additional revenue, and I know that they will not let the community down.”

Since the 2008 recession, the city has eliminated the police department’s South Division and nearly 200 police officer positions. The fire department has lost 84 firefighter positions and more civilian staff, and has idled five fire engines, one truck company and a rescue ambulance. The fire department cuts, along with increased call volume, has dropped the percentage of calls where a standard 6-minute, 20-second response time is met to less than 50%, according to Fire Chief Mike DuRee.

Rex Pritchard, president of the firefighters local, agreed with James that the issue is about providing adequate protection to the city, not a source of money to get raises for members.

“The LBFD is in desperate need to improve response times by adding resources,” Pritchard said. “Fire department response times to 911 calls are the worst in department history and the only way to improve response times will be to add resources like Engine 8 and Rescue 12… This absolutely has nothing to do with contract negotiations, and everything to do with restoring units eliminated like Engine 8, Engine 17, Engine 18, Downtown Engine 101, Truck 14, and Rescue 12.”

But lack of trust in that statement is exactly what a new group calling itself Long Beach Rebellion is using to argue against passage of the measures. Monday, the group issued a demand that City Council members pledge that they will donate their salary to charity if the promise to spend only on infrastructure and increased public safety resources is broken. The demands are being made to each council member individually, Rebellion press contact Franklin Sims said.

“Long Beach Rebellion supporters say since Measure A has no legal guarantee, then for the next 10 days they will ask each individual member of City Council to make a personal pledge,” the press release says. “On the final day, they will seek Mayor Garcia’s personal pledge Tuesday at the first City Council meeting of the month of May.”

Long Beach Rebellion, through Sims, declined to talk about its membership. Tom Stout and Kathy Ryan, longtime anti-tax activists who formed the Long Beach Taxpayers Association, are working with the group, Sims said.

“We don’t have anyone giving us $100,000,” Sims said. “We’re a real grassroots movement… We’ll be rolling things out over the next few weeks. When people say we’re anonymous, well, there’s a great deal of anonymity with Long Beach voters. When we approach them for a signature or a donation, they don’t want to put their names on anything.”

Measure A seeks a 1% increase in the city sales tax for the next six years (generating about $48 million a year), then a 1/2% for another four years before being eliminated completely. The language promises that the additional money will be spent to improve crumbling infrastructure and increase the number of police and firefighters, but because the initiative is a general tax, there is no guarantee money will be spent only on those items.

The initiative includes formation of a citizen oversight committee, and annual audits, but opponents note that the committee members will be appointed by the mayor and City Council, and will not have power to change spending plans.

Measure B, which only takes effect if Measure A passes, puts 1% of the additional revenue in a “Rainy Day” reserve fund to be used only when the city faces deficits.

The election is on June 7, the same day as the state primary election.

Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at hsalt@gazettes.com.

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