In Orange County, Westminster City Council puts tax measure to November ballot

The extension of a sales tax that has been credited with keeping Westminster financially afloat has moved forward after residents berated city officials for years of indecision.

On Friday, four of five city council members agreed to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to renew the 1% sales tax for the next 20 years.

The sales tax, called Measure SS, has brought in $81.5 million since it was passed in 2016. The tax money accounts for about a quarter of the city’s operating budget, staff funding and municipal services. If voters do not approve its extension, it will end on December 31.

The deadline for placing items on the ballot was 5 p.m. Friday. Without the tax, the city is expected to go bankrupt by 2024, even with drastic cuts.

Those cuts would likely lead to closed parks, unpaved streets and the elimination of youth and senior programs, as well as staff layoffs, including a 33% reduction in police force in a city that operates with a reduced staff for years, said City Director Christine Cordon.

In May, city council voted unanimously to approve 10% raises for many city employees starting July 1, representing a budget increase of $2.7 million the following year. Officials say the raises were a necessary step to retain staff concerned about the city’s finances and leaving for better-paying jobs elsewhere.

On Friday, Mayor Tri Ta, Vice Mayor Carlos Manzo and council members Kimberly Ho and Chi Charlie Nguyen voted to put the sales tax on the ballot. The Tai Do counselor abstained.

Earlier in the week the tax looked doomed, with four votes needed to put it on the ballot and only Manzo and Ho in favour.

“Residents know what’s at stake,” Manzo said during a meeting that extended into early Thursday morning. “They have the right to vote if our parks should continue to be maintained. They have the right to vote if our services for seniors should be cut. We must do what we were elected to do: protect our residents and put their needs ahead of our political ambitions.

Ho said she believes residents should vote on the issue. She noted possible cuts to public safety services, adding that police officers are already being moved to other cities due to uncertain Westminster finances.

The board decided to meet again the next day to make a final decision.

At Friday’s meeting, Ta and Nguyen said they changed their position after hearing from locals. Ta said he would only support imposing the ballot tax if there was a 20-year sunset.

In Westminster, a city of more than 90,000 people that is home to Little Saigon, the election of a Vietnamese-majority council more than a decade ago was a milestone.

But in recent years, public meetings have been punctuated by bickering between members of the city council.

“They fight so hard, and that’s why we’re where we are,” said Diana Carey, a former council member who leads a citizens’ committee overseeing the sales tax. “They’re afraid to vote on anything substantive because they feel like other board members will use it against them. But we have to keep the lights on here.

A survey of Westminster residents in 2020 found broad support for the sales tax, with 60% in favor of renewal, 29% against and 11% undecided.

In about four hours of public comment at the two meetings this week, dozens of residents spoke in favor of extending the tax measure.

On Friday, their fears about the city’s future turned into anger at council members who had refused to take a stand.

“You work for us,” resident Roger Mindrum said. “What you have done by not voting for this and abstaining is sheer cowardice. You are acting like tyrants and making fun of the city.

The town’s precarious finances are not entirely the fault of the current council. Proposition 13, passed by California voters in 1978, locked Westminster into below-average property tax returns. The foundations of financial problems were also laid decades ago due to overreliance on state redevelopment funds.

Ta, who is a candidate for the National Assembly, said that when he voted for the sales tax six years ago, he never wanted it to be a permanent solution.

City workers have come up with other ideas for generating revenue, including annexing unincorporated county land to Westminster, electronic billboards, opening a city gas station and the establishment of vendor booths at the Civic Center. The board has not moved forward on these proposals.

Do, who is running for mayor against Nguyen, said voters approved the tax for the first time on the understanding that the council would help transform the city’s finances. But, he says, “nothing was done.”

“I don’t have the guts to ask the taxpayers to keep giving us more money so we can keep more infighting,” he said.

Los Angeles Times

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