Recent Polls Show County Voters Disinclined Toward Local Taxes

(July 31) Public sentiment in San Bernardino County appears to be running against imposing special taxes to assist local governments in curing their current and projected future financial problems.
Polling was recently undertaken in three of the county’s disparate jurisdictions with regard to the willingness of residents to impose on themselves new taxes, the revenue from which would be used to shore up faltering cities or local agencies.
The results of those surveys indicated little prospect those taxing proposals would pass if they were put on the ballot.
Adelanto, which declared a fiscal emergency 13 months ago and in June ratified a 2014-15 general fund budget replete with a $2.61 million deficit, appears to be on the road to bankruptcy. Increasingly desperate city officials there are looking at a host of financial fixes, not the least of which would be a utility tax.
Adelanto city manager Jim Hart has proposed a 7.95 percent utility tax to be applied to both residential and business customers. But, under California law, any new tax to be imposed on residents must first be approved by those to be taxed. Before putting the measure on the ballot, the city hired a consultant to do a phone poll of a cross section of city residents conducted. The most optimistic interpretation of those results was that the prospect of the tax’s passage was marginal, at best. The most realistic interpretation was that the measure would fail and probably fail convincingly.
That poll result, however, did not stop the city council from voting this week to place the tax on the November ballot. Councilman Jermaine Wright was the lone dissenter in approving it.
Quixotically, perhaps, the city’s voters will be asked “To address Adelanto’s fiscal emergency and to prevent bankruptcy, prevent elimination of fire protection services, protect 911 emergency response, police protection, gang and crime prevention, senior services and other essential general services, and to protect local businesses, jobs, and restore fiscal stability shall the city of Adelanto adopt a temporary 7.95 percent utility user tax for seven years, with low income senior discounts, annual audits, citizen’s oversight, and require all funds be used locally?”
In Twentynine Palms, the fire department since 1958 has been overseen by the water district. The department at one time grew to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the 55 square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and the 33 square miles of unincorporated county area that also falls under the water district/fire department’s 88-square mile jurisdiction. The city does not contribute to, participate in or subsidize the fire department’s operational budget, which is infused entirely by a special tax on landowners within the fire department’s service area.
At present, that special tax brings in $1.2 million per year. Under the constraints of that budget, Twentynine Palms Fire Chief Jim Thompson runs a department that previously boasted two fire stations, its headquarters, Station 421 located at 6560 Adobe Road  in the city, and Station 422, located at 3834 Lear Ave. in the unincorporated county community of Desert Heights. Though in years past both stations were staffed 24-hours a day by a three-person engine company consisting of a paid company officer and two volunteer reserve firefighters, last year, the Lear station was shuttered and now all fire department operations are run out of the Adobe station. The professional personnel in the department are now limited to five personnel: Thompson, captain Matt Helmkamp, captain Robert Marquez, engineer Tim Cole, and engineer Lee Martin. The district also has a single person clerical staff position that has been vacant through attrition since March 2013. These are augmented by 28 reserve/volunteer firefighters, all of whom have attended a fire academy. Four of those are local volunteers. The others are aspiring firefighters from more distant areas in San Bernardino County, or Los Angeles, Orange or Riverside counties. Each serves a one-day 24 hour shift per week in Twentynine Palms. The 24 who do not reside in or near Twentynine Palms return to their distant abodes upon the conclusion of their shifts.
In 2012, an effort  to beef up the fire department was made when  a ballot initiative, Measure H, was offered to the voters for approval. Measure H would have increased the special tax customers of the Twentynine Palms Water District pay from the current $80 per unit to $120 per unit with an additional $6 per year increase for the next 10 years to provide enhanced fire protection and emergency medical aid to the community. Voters nixed the initiative, with 850 votes of endorsement, or 48.27 percent, and 911 in opposition, or 51.73 percent. That  mail-in balloting concluded on April 17, 2012, in which 1,761 voters, or 32.93 percent of the 5,421 eligible to participate, returned ballots.
In the intervening time, Thompson was tasked to constrain the department’s operations to function within the available funding parameters. There has been discussion, which has yet to lead to any action, of the city taking on responsibility for the operation of the fire department.
In an effort to explore current funding enhancement possibilities, the Twentynine Palms Water District hired the public opinion firm Lew Edwards Group to test local voter attitudes toward another tax proposal. Lew Edwards in turn worked with FM3 & Associates to phone approximately 250 of the district’s 5,400 registered voters between June 7 and June 26. They posed a series of differently worded questions calculated to elicit the range of voter attitude based upon how a taxing proposal would be presented.
In this way, it appears that Lew Edwards Group conducted both a straightforward pole, in which respondents were asked, without any attempt to influence their answers one way or the other, how they would vote on a tax initiative, as well as a follow-up “push poll” in which those questioned were prompted with information to see if and how that influenced their responses.
Of note is the element in California elections law that requires that a special tax intended for a specific purpose must pass by a two-thirds majority. This is contrasted from a general tax, which needs only a fifty percent plus one majority to go into effect. According to FM3/Lew Edwards, at the extreme end of the push polling, a $32 per residential unit, 10-year parcel tax increase was statistically favored by 64 percent, a $24 per unit, 10-year increase was favored by 60 percent and a $12 per unit, 10-year increase found 68 percent in favor.
Support for the tax increase in the Desert Heights area, where the fire station that traditionally services that area has been shuttered, ran as high as 72 percent. But in the more heavily populated area within the Twentynine Palms city limits, the support for the tax registered no higher than 61 percent.
Based upon the polling numbers, Lew Edwards Group recommended that the district forego seeking the tax increase at this time. The water board’s directors followed suit and voted 4-0 to suspend further efforts to put the tax measure before voters this year.
In Upland, the Lew Edwards Group was also utilized to conduct a poll of a cross section of city residents to determine their attitude toward the imposition of a one cent sales tax.
Rather than start with a straightforward question of whether those polled supported the tax, Lew Edwards started with a 75 word ballot question that incorporated into it elements of an argument in favor of the tax without a countervailing argument against it. The ballot question read:
“Upland Vital City Services Measure. To provide emergency funding to prevent bankruptcy, maintain Upland’s financial viability as a full-service city/protect vital local services including police patrols, firefighters, paramedics, 9-1-1 emergency medical response, and crime prevention; and protect deeper cuts to parks street/pothole repair, youth/senior programs/other city services, shall the City of Upland establish a one-cent sales tax, with citizens’ oversight, annual independent financial audits, all funds used only in Upland?”
As such, the Upland proposal considered in the poll was a general rather than specific tax, requiring only a simple majority – fifty percent plus one – to pass. Despite that, voters on the first two go-rounds supported the concept by less than a fifty percent margin. It was only after those polled were twice prompted with further suggestions in favor of the tax that a majority of poll respondents said they would vote for it.
“By the third ballot ask, 53 percent of respondents indicated they would support this measure, which is within the margin of error of +/- 4.9 percent  for this voting sample,” a letter to the city dated July 9 from Lew Edwards Group states.
The letter says, “Lew Edwards Group’s analysis of the public opinion research conducted by FM3 Research from June 21 to 28, 2014 shows that a one cent general purpose sales tax is above the vote threshold of a simple majority, but within the margin of error for viability in November 2014. As Lew Edwards Group typically advises its cities or public agencies to proceed with placing a measure on the ballot only if a jurisdiction is above the margin of error on the third ballot test, Lew Edwards Group recommends that the city wait for a future election when there is more opportunity to engage the community further on its services, fiscal situation and management.”
According to the letter, “Support for a general purpose sales tax does increase slightly at the half cent level, with potentially 58 percent of respondents indicating they would support a half cent measure. While this is potentially viable under the right set of circumstances, in our organization’s experience it is not prudent to place a measure on the ballot without robustly engaging the community in the dialogue around the need for such a proposal. While the city previously convened a fiscal sustainability task force, unfortunately it would appear as though time does not permit the city to engage in a broader community and stakeholder dialogue about the features of the potential proposal prior to the county registrar’s submittal deadline of August 8th. Specifically, engaging taxpayer advocates, local business owners, and city service providers among others are necessary constituencies to get input from before finalizing such a proposal for the ballot.”
Martin Lomeli, Upland’s interim city manager, in a memo entitled “Survey Results” to the Upland City Council dated July 9, stated, “I was given an oral briefing of the results of the “Survey Assessment” recently conducted by the Lew Edwards Group. Essentially the results of the survey indicated it would not be recommended that the city proceed with any sales or business license tax measures at this time. Both measures were not viewed appropriate by the respondents. The business license option was especially viewed negatively. Based on this information, I would not recommend further consideration of either option at this time.”

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