The community survey focuses on a potential sales tax ballot measure for South Pasadena. Photo by Steve Whitmore

The City Council is expecting to hear soon the preliminary results of a poll costing just under $25,000 designed to gauge the interest of So Pas residents in a citywide sales tax increase that would have to be placed on the ballot.

The survey – conducted by consultant True North Research, which also did a survey for the city last year that dealt with city services and the Utility Users Tax – was launched last month and focused on a potential sales tax ballot measure for November or March of 2020.

The poll is expected to be completed by the end of May but preliminary results are available now, according to the language in the contract.

“Given the city’s urgency to complete the study, we recommend a start date in the last week of March which would allow us to provide initial survey results to the city in late April/early May, and have the entire study complete by the end of May,” states the contract dated March 11 that was signed by City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe.

The council was not involved in the issuance of the poll because DeWolfe has the authority to expend public funds up to $25,000 without council approval or public discussion.

The survey, which has had more than 600 respondents, has already been criticized by some residents who say spending $24,950 for a public opinion poll when the city is facing a more than $1 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year is irresponsible. They also say that the poll is really a “push poll,” meaning the questions are leading the respondent to a sales tax increase.

“It has elements of a push poll,” So Pas resident Chris Bray said in an email to The Review. “A portion of the questions are leading – they’re meant to drive you to a conclusion, not to ask you about your conclusions.”

One way to raise money to combat the deficit, though, is through a ¾ of a cent sales tax increase just for South Pasadena. The combined sales tax for Los Angeles County and the state is 9.5 percent. The So Pas hike would be on top of that figure, according to city officials.

DeWolfe defends the poll as being a critical component in the decision to move forward on the sales tax hike.

“City staff has been actively seeking community input for the past several months on a variety of ideas to balance the city budget, including revenue enhancements and budget cuts,” DeWolfe said in an email to The Review. “We conducted seven community meetings and collected more than 350 responses to our online survey. One of the most popular options among the revenue enhancements was a ¾ of a cent sales tax increase, favored by about 65 percent of respondents. Residents were particularly supportive when presented with the likelihood that L.A. County would enact a similar tax hike to supplement the county budget, leaving South Pasadena without a mechanism for additional local funds. Based on that feedback, we moved forward with a professional poll to test the results of our informal study. The cost of the study is a relatively small investment to potentially realize a $1.5 million annual revenue source that would enable the city to continue providing the high level of local services that our residents support.”

Bray stands on the opposite end of the spectrum, not only disagreeing with DeWolfe, but indicating the city is not listening to residents at all.

“The most striking thing about this poll is that it only mentions the same alternatives that the city had already offered before they held that series of meetings to supposedly listen to the community,” Bray said. “Many people offered many ideas about other ways the city could raise money. All of those ideas died where they were born – they sank and vanished the moment citizens mentioned them to the city. I don’t see any evidence at all that anyone from the city listened to anyone outside City Hall at all. Somehow we have a great city, excellent and responsive city services, and a closed culture at the top of the city government. I really don’t understand it. Talking to our City Council is like talking to a wall.”

Bray is not alone in his criticism and many vowed to be at the council meeting this past Wednesday, which took place after The Review’s press deadline.

However, other city officials agree with DeWolfe, saying it would be irresponsible not to gauge public opinion on the issue before placing it before voters.

“The poll is being conducted specifically to measure support for the additional sales tax,” John Pope, So Pas public information officer, said in an email to The Review. “It would be irresponsible of any city to move forward with the expense of a ballot measure without conducting a scientifically sound poll that measured community support for that ballot measure.”

Pope also said that the city would have to take another step before placing the measure on the ballot. 

“The city would have to declare a fiscal emergency to place the measure on the November ballot,” Pope said. “That is a decision that will be made by the City Council, pending the poll results.”

Pope added that the such a declaration would not necessarily negatively affect the city’s credit or bond rating. In fact, it could help it, Pope said.

“The declaration by itself is not likely to affect the city’s credit standing since it is being done in the service of an additional revenue source,” Pope said. “The rating agencies take into account many factors, including a city’s long-term financial stability. Should the tax measure succeed, it may improve the city’s bond rating.”

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Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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