Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas / Photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft

In 2016, Chula Vista officials told residents the city direly needed new revenue to address its crumbling infrastructure. Now, residents are being asked to raise the sales tax for the second time in two years, citing a hair-on-fire need for additional police and fire personnel.

Measure A would increase Chula Vista’s sales tax from 8.25 percent to 8.75 percent, which would put the city in a tie with neighboring National City for the highest sales tax in the county.

More than $120,000 has been donated to the Yes on Measure A for Public Safety committee, campaign filings show. The firefighters and police unions donated $20,000 apiece. Another $15,000 came from RIDA, the developer behind the recently approved $1.1 billion bayfront hotel and convention center.

Paula Whitsell, a member of the opposition group Just Say No on A, says there is no guarantee the funds will only be used for public safety.

“They’re selling it as a specific tax, but it goes into the general fund,” she said.

Indeed, Measure A is a general tax. That means there’s a trade-off involved: A general tax – one where revenues aren’t designated for a specific purpose – only needs a simple majority to pass. But it means voters are taking a leap of faith that city leaders would really spend the money on public safety needs. A specific tax would guarantee the money would only be spent on public safety, but those require the approval of two-thirds of voters.

Measure P was also a general tax; it has a 10-year expiration date. Measure A is a permanent tax.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which supported Measure P, has come out against Measure A, saying that it does not include sufficient taxpayer protections and that the city isn’t legally obligated to spend the funds on public safety.

Assistant City Manager Maria Kachadoorian disputes that there would be a lack of oversight.

“Both Measure A and Measure P are general tax measures,” she said. “We would have an oversight committee … it’s in the ordinance. They’re very similar, except one is temporary, one is ongoing.”

Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas downplayed concerns about how the increased revenue would be spent. She said the city is committed to hiring more police officers and firefighters.

“Once you hire a police officer or firefighter, you have to pay them,” she said. “These people opposed … it’s a small group of people. I’ve invited critics to come to my office and go over our budget. They haven’t come.”

Salas pointed to the city’s relatively low officer-per-resident ratio — 0.9 officers for every 1,000 people, according to SANDAG — and fire department response times as reasons that those departments need to expand.

“We have a critical staffing crisis in police and fire departments,” she said.

David Oyos, president of Chula Vista’s police union, made a similar argument in a Voice of San Diego op-ed in March.

“In my 18 years on the department, I have never seen it this bad,” he wrote. “We are not crying wolf. It’s a reality check.”

The city, as Oyos pointed out, hasn’t been meeting its targeted 911 call response times.

Crime rates, however, have been in steady decline for decades, and the city has appeared on numerous “safest cities” lists over the last several years.

Chula Vista has undergone rapid development and growth since the 1990s, but has not captured the revenue necessary to keep up. Residential growth has outpaced commercial growth.

“Seventy percent of residents work outside Chula Vista,” Salas said. “That results in people buying goods and services outside of the city.”

Salas also responded to criticism that Measure A is a “regressive” tax — one that presents more of a burden on low-income residents – noting that the tax wouldn’t apply to groceries.

“This is something that can be shared equally with everyone,” she said.

A 250-page report submitted to the City Council by Damon French, a former Chula Vista librarian, points elsewhere to explain the city’s fiscal woes. In the report, French notes that some of the city’s highest paid employees are in public safety.

According to the city’s 2017-2018 budget, police and fire departments account for 49 percent of its general fund expenditures. Irvine — a city with a comparable population and budget — had a public safety expenditure of about 40 percent in 2016, the last year for which that data was published.

Yet the ballot language for Measure A uses a different, and much higher, figure. It lists the cost of public safety as a percentage of discretionary revenues – its sales and property taxes and whatnot – and through that lens, it accounts for 67 percent.

“We operate very lean as a city,” Salas said. “A half-cent sales tax is a small price to pay for the safety of our community.”

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