Upland To Use Public Money To Lobby Residents To Pass Tax Measure

(May 1) The Upland City Council this week on a 4-1 vote approved spending $75,000 of  taxpayer money in an effort to convince the city’s residents to approve the imposition of a half percent city-wide sales tax and an increase in the city’s business tax.
For seven months, Upland City Manager Stephen Dunn has been pushing the city council to seek residential approval of these measures to shore up city finances and head off projected deficits in upcoming fiscal years. The council shied away from immediately approving that request but in October appointed a budget task force to look at the city’s fiscal circumstance. One option outlined by the task force was that the city council could seek, through a ballot measure, city voter approval of a tax.
Simultaneously, however, a growing number of vocal city residents have advocated against any tax increases, asserting that past decisions by the city council have conferred upon city employees salaries and benefits that are too generous and which are leaving the city in the position of having to pay exorbitant  pensions to employees upon retirement. They are calling for a renegotiation of the employment contracts with municipal employees to reduce ongoing and future operating costs and pension obligations before residents are called upon to cover  those costs in the form of new taxes.
This week Dunn requested the council appropriate $75,000 from the city’s general fund reserves “for two purposes: to engage a firm to survey the citizens of Upland about the potential sales tax and business license tax measures and to engage the services of a public relations firm to assist staff in providing the public with accurate and correct information on many of the task force recommendations that will be addressed over the next 12 months. The estimated cost for these services are $27,000 and $48,000 respectively.”
Councilman Glenn Bozar, the leading advocate on the council for reducing city expenses, in particular its pension costs before increasing taxes, pointed out that the language in Dunn’s request, specifically  “providing the public with accurate and correct information on many of the task force recommendations” may involve  undertaking an effort to convince residents to approve the sales tax by means of the polling questions being asked.
Dunn had previously discussed the city’s pension cost increasing to $7.7 million per year in fiscal year 2014-15. According to the California Public Employees Retirement System, pension costs are scheduled to increase by more than 50 percent in the next six years. Currently, after working for the city for 30 to 35 years,  city employees are eligible to retire at the age of 55 and receive 90 percent of their highest annual salary as a pension. Dunn’s projections indicate that nearly all revenue raising initiatives that are being considered will be consumed by pension costs.
Bozar sought to convince his colleagues that the informational campaign Dunn is seeking could be done at less cost by including information in the utility bills the city sends to utility service customers.
Bozar’s colleagues, however, said that they felt Dunn had to be given the support he requested.
Councilman Brendan Brandt expressed faith in Dunn’s judgment and decision-making, encouraging the others to approve his recommedation.
“We do not have the money, but we need to find it and move forward,” said councilwoman Debbie Stone.
“I voted against that expenditure because I don’t think it is necessary and it is an unwise use of public funds,” Bozar told the Sentinel. “If you want to educate the public as to what these measures are, you could do it through our utility bills at a fraction of the cost.”
Indications were that Steve Lambert of the 20/20 Network would be given the $48,000 no-bid contract to lobby the public with regard to passing the half percent sales tax. The 20/20 Network is a communications firm  headed by Lambert and Tim Gallagher specializing in media and community relations, branding, strategic planning and crisis management. Lambert is the former editor of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the most widely circulated daily newspaper in Upland. The 20/20 Network represented the city of Rialto in its public relations effort to promote the privatization of its water division, blunting resident outrage over a resultant 115 percent increase in water rates in that city.
On May 1, Lambert  told the Sentinel materials for public consumption would not be ready for at least another two weeks. “We will be sitting down with the city to do a strategic review in the next couple of days,” Lambert said.

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