Members of the committee to retain the city’s Utility Users’ Tax, Sally Kilby (far left) and Ellen Wood (far right), discuss with Evelyn Zneimer and John Podlenski at Sunday’s concert in the park the ballot measure that will come before voters at the General Election Nov. 6. Photo by Henk Friezer

South Pasadena’s City Council recently, as was expected, went through the “very” painful process of proposing cuts line-by-line if the Utility Users Tax was repealed by voters in November.

Although the city is legally prohibited from advocating either way for the Utility Users Tax, or the UUT, it can provide information such as what would have to be cut if the tax was voted down.

And that’s what City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe did during the council meeting recently. Also, DeWolfe wanted the council to give its approval of the proposed cuts in what she’s calling the Fiscal Impact Report/Draft Implementation Plan.

“If the UUT is repealed on Nov. 6, it will go into effect the next day,” De Wolfe told the council. “We have to be ready.”

Some of those cuts include eliminating the crossing guard contract for school sites, eliminate the School Resources Officer, eliminate the police cadet program, reduce police staff by nine, reduce weekly public library hours from 57 to 37, close the library on Sundays and Mondays, reduce all hours on other days, eliminate special programs for children, eliminate author nights and film nights, reduce the book-purchasing budget, eliminate all planned capital improvements and reduce full-time staff by three and significantly reduce part-time staff hours.

The proposed cuts also would include reducing fire personnel from four to three per engine, a 70-percent cut in funding for street improvements and maintenance, reduce tree planting on city streets and parks, reduce fire and paramedic staff below nationally recommended levels – from six to five per shift, and cut new public art funding. The city would have to layoff 14 full-time equivalent personnel and 50 part-time equivalent personnel. The city currently has 147 full-time employees, according to DeWolfe.

The UUT, which pays in large measure for police, fire, library, streets, parks and recreations, is the second largest revenue source for the city after property taxes and generates $3.4 million or 12 percent of the approximate $27 million fiscal plan. Property taxes provide about 49 percent of the general fund at $13.6 million, while sales tax is the third largest source of city funding at 11 percent and has remained flat in recent years, according to the staff report.

South Pasadena is one of fewer than 25 percent of statewide cities that provide a full range of municipal services within their boundaries rather than rely on other agencies to provide these services, according to city officials.

The UUT tax is placed on monthly residential and commercial utility bills such as mobile phones, electricity, gas, water, hardline telephone and cable television, according to city officials.

“This is an incredibly painful process,” said Councilwoman Diana Mahmud. “This affects our seniors, our youth. We do an excellent job for our seniors. This is just incredibly painful.”

The initiative to repeal the UUT was brought forth by a Pasadena-based political group, “TeaPAC,” according to information presented to the council Wednesday night by De Wolfe.

“TeaPAC is part of the broader Tea Party movement, which generally advocates lower taxes and reduced government services,” according to the slides presented to the council. Two prior attempts by TeaPAC to place the repeal on the ballot failed. The third attempt, though, collected enough signatures, 363, to place it on the ballot. If a person wants to keep the utility tax, they vote “no.” If they want to repeal the tax, they vote “yes.”

The UUT was first passed by So Pas voters in 1983, and was renewed by voters again in 2011, ostensibly for a 10-year term.

Members of the TeaPAC were unreachable for comment. This group has attempted to repeal the same tax in Glendale, Arcadia and Sierra Madre. All attempts have failed.

The UUT squeaked by in 2011 by a 53.7 percent, making this upcoming vote a “significant challenge,” city officials said.

“We are taking this challenge to the UUT very seriously, and planning for the potential loss of a significant source of revenue for the City,” DeWolfe said. “The implementation plan shows that the loss of the UUT revenues would have significant impacts to services and the quality of life in South Pasadena. The cuts would impact nearly every service area, including police, fire and public works.” ​

The council approved the plan by a 5-0 vote with some minor modifications. The council wants to see more protection for the trees and more library hours added.

“This is just a concept,” Councilman Robert S. Joe reminded the council. “Things can change.”

This plan will be presented at additional public meetings including the Finance Commission as well as other community group meetings for final adoption, according to the city. The council will take up the issue again at its September meeting.

In the meantime, a citizens’ group, South Pasadena Public Services Committee 2018, has recently formed and has already raised more than $2,500 for the campaign to defeat the repeal. The group recently had its first informational meeting attended by more than 135 people, who crowded into the library’s community room.

Moreover, the city recently funded a survey regarding residents’ satisfaction or dissatisfaction with South Pasadena services. That survey broke out a section just for the UUT issue and reported about a 95 percent approval rating. The survey has a five percent margin of error.

Mahmud, who also is running for re-election in November, said she was excited about the new citizens’ group formed to fight the repeal.

“I was very pleased to see the excellent turnout from the community for the initial Save Our Services campaign meeting,” Mahmud said. “I think most residents understand that our quality of life in South Pasadena is threatened unless the UUT is retained.  We are a small city with a small budget, and when you lose 12-13% of your total budget as we would if UUT repeal is successful, there would be significant cutbacks in certain areas that I believe would be felt by our residents. What makes South Pasadena special is our very strong sense of community.  I trust that community will support UUT retention to ensure it continues to enjoy the quality of life we are privileged to experience here in South Pas.”

The council also voted down a proposed advisory ballot measure, 5-0, that would have described the cuts that would have needed to be implemented if the repeal is successful.

Members of the public told the council the advisory measure would have been confusing and unnecessary. The council agreed and voted it down.

Steve Whitmore
Author

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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