Herald American

Downey to ask voters to increase sales tax

DOWNEY — Residents here will vote in the general election Nov. 8 on a proposed one-half-cent sales tax hike estimated to bring in about $9 million a year and raise the sales tax of the city to 9.5 percent on each dollar spent in a local store or business.

The council voted 3-2 March 22 to place the item on the November ballot. Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez and council members Roger Brossmer and Luis Marquez supported the proposal. Mayor Alex Saab and Councilman Sean Ashton dissented.

By the same margin, the council hired the firm of TBWS Strategies, based in San Francisco, to promote the issue and explain it to the community via written communication and public meetings for a fee of $83,000.

Adam Somensheine, of the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin, Mertz and Associates, hired Jan. 26 to survey residents, said from 70 to 80 percent of the 400 residents polled expressed “strong agreement” or “somewhat agreement” on questions regarding how the city is doing, current city services and whether a tax hike is needed for upgrades in public safety, public works and parks.

The telephone poll took place between Feb. 1-6 and was conducted on cell phones, landlines and in English and Spanish.

Questioned by the council March 22, Somensheine said his staff had to make several thousand phone calls before finding 400 who would take the 20-minute survey. Questioned by Saab, he said only 20 percent of the surveys were conducted with English-speaking residents.

Two residents spoke against the tax. A woman said the questions sounded “hypothetical” and the respondents may not have realized there would be a tax. She said the hike “would punish people for shopping in Downey and could harm efforts to bring in new businesses.”

A man agreed, saying the questions in the survey were nuanced and the tax would discourage people who want to start a business in Downey.

But Marquez said he talked with city officials in South Gate and Pico Rivera, which both increased their sales taxes in 2009, and said they saw no drop in development.

Saab asked whether the 75-acre Downey Promenade project at Lakewood Boulevard and Imperial Highway would increase sales tax revenues.

City Manager Gil Livas said it would not be enough to make the improvements desired.

“We have not regained revenue we had before the [recession] in 2008,” Livas said. “We lost three automobile dealerships, each providing about $250,000 [a year] in sales tax. A large department store (such as those in the Promenade) would provide only about $100,000.

Questioned by the council, Livas said a hotel tax hike would only generate about $100,000 a year. A bond issue, paid off by property taxes, would affect only property owners who recently approved a bond sale for school improvements.

He said staff went for the sales tax increase as it would affect non-residents who shop in Downey along with residents.

Ashton suggested specific spending of the tax proceeds for public safety, but City Attorney Yvette Abich Garcia said that would be require approval of two-thirds of the voters approval as opposed to a simple majority with no specific funding commitment.

Livas said the council could officially declare that it would spend only on public safety, but pointed out that many residential roads need repair and parks have been neglected for 30 years.

Questioned by the council, Police Chief Carl Charles said his department, now at 109, could use another seven to 10 officers as petty crime is up. He blamed the release of about 15,000 prisoners by the state for the crime increase.

Fire Chief Mark Gillaspie said four of the five fire stations are about 40 years old and new equipment would be helpful.

“Public safety is expensive,” Livas said, noting that the poll indicated high support for local control of the two departments and that public safety appears to be the top priority of those in the survey.