The Lompoc City Council cleared the way Tuesday night for a 1% sales tax increase to go before voters early next year.
The governing body voted 5-0 to declare a fiscal emergency, a move required by the state in order to put the measure on a special ballot, and also unanimously approved ballot language and allocated $25,000 to pay for the sales tax measure to go on the March 3, 2020, state primary ballot.
The moves came after much discussion and debate this year about the city’s financial future as it looks to pay down its debt to CalPERS, the state’s pension program, and also increase city services in areas like public safety while facing declining revenue.
The Lompoc City Council agreed Tuesday to have staff explore the formation of a nonprofit organization to help fund city projects, and the governing body also approved a change to the city’s code-enforcement complaint process that will strip away anonymity for certain complainants.
“We could’ve kept … kicking the can down the road in not addressing this,” Councilman Jim Mosby said of the potential tax revenue being used to pay down the city’s pension obligations. “But who’d want to come to a community that’s not addressing this? Who’d want to come and work here?”
Much of Tuesday night’s conversation centered on what specific phrasing should be used for the question that will appear on the ballot. The council considered six options.
After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the council ultimately settled on a slightly altered version of an option that was presented by Mosby.
That ballot question reads: “To maintain and improve public services, including neighborhood police patrols, firefighter staffing, gang enforcement, crime and vandalism prevention, street improvements, community and recreational services, park upgrades, reduction of long-term liabilities (which includes a potential $21 million in interest payments), and other general city services, shall the measure establishing an additional maximum 1% sales tax, ending in 15 years, and estimated to generate $4,800,000 annually, be adopted?”
Councilman Dirk Starbuck was the most vocal opposition to that language, saying that he felt that phrasing could be seen as an attempt to trick the public since it does not clearly state that the council intends for the money to be used primarily to pay down the CalPERS obligation before addressing those other city services with potential leftover funds.
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The Lompoc City Council voted 4-1 during Monday’s special session to adopt a 2019-21 biennial budget that is heavy on cuts, including the elimination of several positions. The adopted budget does not include any projections from a potential sales tax increase, but the governing body discussed parameters for a ballot measure to increase the city’s sales tax and made plans to further review those options at a future meeting.
Starbuck said he felt it was important to be “honest and specific” to voters.
Mayor Jenelle Osborne agreed with that latter statement, but said she felt like leading the ballot language with the CalPERS information would be “damaging out of the gate” for the measure’s success with voters who aren’t completely familiar with the city’s financial situation.
“It needs to be truthful, but it also needs to be set up for success, not set up for failure,” she said.
In other moves related to the ballot measure, the council decided to form a subcommittee consisting of Osborne and Councilman Victor Vega to write the arguments in favor of the measure that will appear on the ballot. The arguments against the measure will be solicited from the public.
City attorney Jeff Malawy, who provided legal input during Tuesday’s discussion, will be tasked with providing the neutral analysis of the measure that will appear on the ballot.
The $25,000 allocation approved by the council will be paid to Santa Barbara County to consolidate the election with the statewide primary.
If the measure is approved by a simple majority of the city’s electorate, the funds would begin getting collected 110 days later, or around July 2020. The revenue would then be expected to reach the city in October 2020, according to a city staff report.
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.