In a somewhat surprising move and only after a councilwoman questioned their absence at a So Pas City Council meeting, proponents of repealing the Utility Users Tax (UUT) appeared at the last meeting to defend their unpopular position.
Voters are going to decide Nov. 6 whether to repeal the UUT, which provides about 12 percent of the city’s general fund. That translates to about $3.4 million of the city’s approximate $25 million budget.
Ed Ristow, Marcy Guzman and others took to the microphone Oct. 3 to tell the council and the public that their ballot statements regarding the UUT were, indeed, accurate. And why they support repealing the UUT.
In a way, it became a de facto debate or discussion for both prevailing viewpoints surrounding the UUT. The difficult challenge for members of the City Council is that they are prohibited by law to lobby for the UUT, so their points had to be informational and not advocacy.
Ristow presented the overarching reasoning for repealing the UUT.
“I’m a proponent of Measure N and I’m concerned about the city’s finances,” Ristow said while he offered a summation of why the repeal should be supported during the council meeting. “From 1972 through 1995, I was the city treasurer and, on the outside, I was a CPA and an attorney. I want to comment about the claims that there would be cuts in programs and services if Measure N passes…Among the claims, I counted 12 programs to be completely eliminated and another six to be severely restricted. For example, the Senior Center would be closed, except for the lunches. The school guards’ crossing program would be eliminated. Firefighters and paramedics would be reduced by 25 percent. And even the 911-call response would be slowed down. Although, I don’t know why police cars and fire engines would drive slower if they didn’t have the utility tax revenue? In my opinion, we’re being fed a bunch of nonsense and scare tactics. As long as there’s unallocated reserves in the general fund, which means money that can be spent for any purpose, the city wouldn’t tolerate these cuts…My advice is let’s not be taken in by scare tactics and false claims and if we don’t have the revenue from the utility tax, everything we value in this city will disappear.”
Others spoke as well, but Ristow presented the global reasoning for the repeal. Marcy Guzman, on the other hand, appeared flustered with her statements, even offering UUT proponents had erred in saying current employees cannot be put on 401k because CalPERS would not allow it. However, her husband Guillermo and Ristow corrected that by saying during an earlier interview that proponents do not want current employees to go on a 401k retirement program but only new hires.
Those statements are regarding the increasing financial burden presented by the growing pension liabilities that loom over many cities statewide, including So Pas.
In any event, Councilwoman Diana Mahmud asked the City Attorney, Teresa L. Highsmith, if CalPERS would allow even new employees to be place on a 401k program. Highsmith did not know specifically but did say it was “unlikely” that CalPERS would allow such a move.
Moreover, councilman Michael Cacciotti said all the council was concerned with the same issues put forth by the proponents, but the reason why the city requires the UUT, in large measure, is because of neglect. Cacciotti offered up a spirited defense of the city’s fiscal position.
“I share all of your concerns,” Cacciotti said. “You talk about bloated salaries and roads that weren’t repaired well. You know Ed was treasurer for many years and your concerns about the pensions, etcetera. All these are concerns of all of us but let’s just look the bigger picture…This reminds me, Ed talked to you as the treasurer from ‘72 to ‘95. When I got on the council, I examined those past budgets. I went back and I said ‘wait, how come the city in 2001 is ready to fall apart?’ How come we have a water system that nothing was done to for 40 years. Between 1960 and 2001, zero was done…they never put money in the streets, to water, that’s what you’re asking us to do today. This is what will happen. We’ll pass it on to the next generation. Nothing on streets, so when the next council comes in the next 15 or 20 years, oh, the cost of streets is (now) $100 million. That was the problem during those 30 or 40 years after Prop. 13. They spent nothing on streets. The budget, 2001, zero on streets. 2018, $2 million on streets. There’s no bloated salaries. We are in the bottom fifth (of salaries)… I don’t know how we keep these employees because… we’re always behind. It’s hard to retain our employees and during the recession of 2008 to 2012, we didn’t give any raises for three years… You can’t look at this in a vacuum. We’re in the best position of all the cities in California. We’re not going to be laying off police or firefighters or closing our libraries. But when you compare us and you got to compare us, salaries, pension, everything, we are in the best position of all the cities in California.”
A recent public survey asking So Pas residents about the city’s performance regarding services had a section dedicated to the UUT. About 70 percent said they support the UUT. However, the last time the UUT was on the ballot it won approval by a narrow margin of about 51 percent.