The utility users tax is here to stay — unless voters take extra steps to get rid of it someday — after a seemingly enthusiastic renewal by South Pasadena voters in Tuesday’s election.
As of the Review’s press deadline on Wednesday, Measure U — the ballot measure to extend the 7.5% tax on utility and technology bills indefinitely — carried an impressive 76.46% of the vote, with 9,544 ballots in favor of the measure. There were 2,939 votes against the extension.
“It’s what we’ve seen over and over again in the last few years,” said Ed Donnelly, chair of the Measure U renewal campaign committee, on Wednesday. “South Pasadena voters are really voting for the city. They’re voting to affirm their small-town way of life, their city services and their public safety. To see it once again is just a great feeling.”
The tax has been in place for almost four decades and draws income from residents’ utility bills — gas, water, electric — as well as bills for tech services like cable TV, cellphones and now, in a sign of the times, Zoom subscriptions. The tax generated around $3.5 million for the city in the last fiscal year.
For this renewal, the usual sunset clause was removed, meaning that to end the tax voters will have to place a referendum on the ballot.
“It’s been in place for nearly 40 years, so having a sunset clause didn’t make an awful lot of sense when clearly, South Pas voters think this is something we need and want here,” Donnelly said.
The measure’s advocates urged renewal to help the city navigate the uncertain economic conditions that accompany the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated local retailers and eateries and the sales taxes they generate. Though voters defeated an effort in 2018 to do away with the tax, there was no concerted campaign against renewing it this year.
“As we recover from the COVID crisis, there are some tough decisions that have to be made, and maintaining 12% of our annual revenue will make the decisions easier to make,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly said the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into campaign planning, which began in January. Social distancing guidelines and restrictions on gatherings put the kibosh on typical campaign events and practices.
Instead, he said, the campaign focused on phone banking, online outreach and Zoom meetings with interest groups and hosted a drive-thru sign giveaway that included a free slice of pizza.
“Like every campaign, we faced the challenges of ‘How do you talk to your neighbor?’” Donnelly explained. “How do you talk to people about the issues and persuade them to vote for it without being able to get near them? Traditionally, we would have had a whole pizza party.
“We didn’t knock on doors at all,” he continued. “We considered that maybe we could do some canvassing, wearing a mask, standing on the sidewalk and shouting back and forth at each other, but we decided that wasn’t a good idea. At the end of the day, we were finding just as many ways to connect with voters without making anyone feel uncomfortable. It was a challenge, but it worked.”