Displaying signs that carried messages such as “Votes Not Cuts” and “Services and Safety over Dictatorship and Bankruptcy,” dozens of Lompoc community members rallied in front of City Hall on Tuesday evening in an effort to get a sales tax increase put on a future ballot.
The demonstration was held prior to Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Lompoc City Council, and continued a debate that has carried on for parts of two years inside City Hall between City Council members and city administrators.
The rally was planned as a peaceful nonpartisan demonstration to get a 1-percent sales tax increase put before Lompoc voters, a move that has been recommended by city staff as a way to help balance the city’s budget. At least two residents showed up to counter-protest against the idea of using a broad tax hike to offset declining revenue, a strategy that has been opposed by a majority of the City Council since the 2017 budget discussions.
There was no formal discussion of the issue by the City Council during the meeting that followed the rally, though several of the demonstrators offered public comment relating to the issue. The only significant budget-related move made by the City Council on Tuesday was to schedule the next workshop for the 2019-21 biennial budget for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, at City Hall.
“It just seems like it’s usually us tax-and-spend liberals that are asking for tax increases, but it is Republicans [here], too,” Lompoc resident Leah Braitman said to the City Council during the open comment period.
“At least put it on the ballot,” she later added.
While there was some shouting between opposing sides during the pre-City Council rally, it remained peaceful and mostly orderly.
Travis Border, who works in the city’s electrical department, said he rallied in support of getting the sales tax increase on the ballot because he couldn't fathom where the city could cut its way out of its looming deficits without significantly impacting the city’s workforce.
Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne delivered a sobering State of the City presentation Thursday afternoon that emphasized several of the challenges — particularly those related to projected budget shortfalls — that the city is already dealing with or will be navigating in the near future. Before concluding, however, she assured her audience of mostly business and civic leaders that the tone wasn’t meant to be somber.
City department heads painted a bleak outlook when they discussed potential cuts at the city's most recent budget workshop on April 17, and Border said those discussions haven't been any more optimistic in private.
“Right now they’re talking about giving us furloughs, talking about possibly laying us off, talking about pay reductions, talking about making us pay more in healthcare,” he said. “They’re talking about making us pay more in retirement, and we’re already currently the lowest paid electrical division in the state of California as it is.”
Demonstrators, many of whom were city employees or related to city employees, held signs and chanted in unison throughout the early portion of the rally.
Lompoc resident Joe A. Garcia arrived about 10 minutes into the rally, though, and offered the first — or at least loudest — voice of opposition.
Garcia carried with him a basket of plastic cleavers, one of which he waved around in a cutting motion as he held a bullhorn and chanted “Ax the tax.”
Several of the demonstrators tried shouting him down, but he continued to march throughout the demonstration and express his counter-opinion.
“I’m not against finding future funding for what they need here,” Garcia said during a moment away from the rally. “What I’m against is writing blank checks for a tax for the general fund. There is no accountability [and] there’s no say whatsoever once that tax is passed on how that money is spent.”
Garcia said he was in support of a special tax that would specifically go toward public safety or the city’s obligation to CalPERS, the state’s pension system that has largely been blamed by city administrators for the city’s precarious financial position.
“I don’t want to see any more money go to the general fund,” Garcia said. “They have enough money.”
Councilman Jim Mosby, who has been one of the most vocal anti-tax voices on the dais over the past two years, used his comment period at the end of Tuesday's meeting to further explain his position in regards to a tax increase.
Mosby noted that the City Council majority had asked city staff on March 19 to come up with a draft budget that doesn't take into account any new tax funds, and said he personally asked for a follow-up discussion regarding new taxes next April.
"It's still on the tip of our tongues," Mosby said of potential tax increases, "but understand that what we are trying to do right now is to move forward with the money that we have and understand what we can do."
A nonpartisan “Give Us the Vote” rally has been planned for 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, in front of Lompoc City Hall. The rally, which will take place ahead of that night’s regular 6:30 p.m. meeting of the Lompoc City Council, is aimed at encouraging City Council members to place a 1-percent sales tax increase on a future ballot, a move that has been recommended by city staff as a way to generate revenue and balance the city’s budget.