Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | As a Chula Vistan, I am passionate about my community. As a former banker, I understand finance and budgets. Like my neighbors, I love Chula Vista and hate tax increases.
But after conducting my own “audit” of the City finances, I now realize if we want to preserve our city as a desirable place to live, we must pass Proposition A. If it fails, we’ll have more crime, more potholed streets, almost no recreational facilities and libraries, and our beautiful city will rapidly decline.
What’s the basic problem with Chula Vista’s finances? Our revenue sources are neither secure nor reliable and are simply not adequate to operate and maintain our city. Chula Vista’s funding per capita is among the lowest in the county. We currently receive only $50 monthly per resident to run our city. With these few dollars we must: provide police and fire protection; answer 911 emergencies; maintain and repair roads, sidewalks, street lights, signs, traffic signals; eradicate graffiti; provide water drainage facilities; operate libraries; run senior and youth programs; provide recreation centers; maintain parks, and; plan and regulate development in the city.
Honestly, if you were in charge of the city, could you provide all of this for $50 per month per person? Common sense says no; it simply should cost more!
Why does our City receive so little income? It’s pretty simple when you focus on the three revenue streams most cities rely on:
- Sales Taxes: We don’t have enough business to produce much sales tax. National City receives twice as much income from sales tax per person as Chula Vista because they have many more shopping opportunities.
- Property Taxes: 36 percent of our budget comes from property taxes. The foreclosure crisis and recession have hit property values very hard. Our home values have plunged more than anywhere else in the county. Because we have an abundance of newer housing stock, which is the hardest hit, the downward spiral of property tax revenue will continue over the next several years. Less property tax means less money to run the city, but we still need the same basic, non-extravagant services.
- Hotel Taxes: We have almost no hotel tax revenue. While we have good potential for hotel development in the long term — on the bayfront and elsewhere — current hotel tax revenue is very small given the size of our city.
Because of low funding, Chula Vista has been cutting corners for years.
1) We spend less on police and fire protection than any other city in the county — 23 percent less than the average city. We only have 1 officer per thousand residents compared with the county average of 1.35 and the national average of 2.3. We will ultimately suffer with more crime. Fire protection is a similar story. We have fewer fire fighters per capita than all other cities in the county.
2) Our infrastructure deficiencies are rapidly escalating. Many streets are in bad shape, particularly in western Chula Vista. Just like your house, if not maintained properly, our vital streets go into disrepair and then it costs much, much more to fix. Our deferred maintenance is currently estimated at an astounding $400 million. Postponing street maintenance will dramatically increase these costs. We cannot afford to wait! If we want to attract and keep quality businesses, jobs, and residents, we have to invest in Chula Vista and Chula Vista’s future!
How do we know Prop A funds will be used wisely? Contrary to the state sales tax increase, all of funds from Prop A will stay in Chula Vista. Several things tell me these funds will be spent wisely:
1) This is local government — your fellow citizens, businesses and community groups keep a close, watchful eye over City Hall;
2) The City Manager has demonstrated prudent toughness — cutting about 15% of the work force, negotiating away pay increases, and streamlining management by merging and flattening departments;
3) The City Council mandated an independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee to ensure long-term frugality. And they voted to bring a mid-term ballot measure to the voters in five years to either repeal or reaffirm the tax. If they haven’t spent the funds wisely, we voters will have our say!
Do the arguments against Proposition A really hold water?
Argument 1: “We have a free spending council and we cannot trust them.”
Response: Not so, the current City Council has been very responsible and has made a number of tough decisions to reduce costs in the last 18 months. They have cut 165 staff positions during that time. Lack of trust in the current council is not a fair or accurate assessment. If a citizen lacks trust, the answer is to get involved and monitor the actions of the council and to make one’s voice heard. We still need to invest in our city.
Argument 2: “None of the money will go toward maintaining services. It all goes toward employee benefits”.
Response: The City Council and manager recently negotiated cuts or deferrals to all employee bargaining units in spite of the fact that those employee groups had contracts in place. Most gave up or deferred 4 percent raises over the next two years. The contracts were extended to 2013.
At that time, the council can decide if further reduction in pay or benefits are needed or warranted. In the meantime, if we don’t approve Proposition A, the council will be forced to continue to reduce vital public services and defer critically needed infrastructure improvements.
Argument 3: “Ten years is too long. The increase in sales tax should only be for five years.”
Response: With our deferred infrastructure needs, our shortage of police and fire, the probability of a protracted recession, and our lack of a reserve, (to name but a few reasons), it is unfortunate but we most likely will need this funding for 10 years.
Secondly, our city will still have a structural flaw in that the traditional sources that fund city operations for our city are not as strong as other cities and are simply not adequate There are some great hopes that the economy will turn around. Even if this happens, our city is going to need help.
Argument 4: “One percent is too much. It should be less.”
Response: One percent will produce $20-$25 million per year. This is simply what we need to fix the cost cutting we have done over the last number of years. We all have to decide what kind of Chula Vista we want. Our city, like our home, should show pride of ownership. Sending a message of our own commitment to our city will attract others to invest and want to come.
This investment will allow our community to remain a vibrant place where people want to live, work, play, raise families and grow old.
Conclusion: The arguments against Proposition A do not hold water!! We should vote to pass Proposition A.
Proposition a will cost each of us about 25 cents per day. That is a small price to ensure our city’s future!
Mitch Thompson is a Chula Vista Planning Commissioner and a 30-year South Bay resident. He chaired the city’s General Plan Update Steering Committee for several years. E-mail him your feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org“>email@example.com.