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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on March 25th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 4 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 4

Lompoc just might not get what it voted for

By RON FINK

Sixty-eight percent of voters in Lompoc approved a 15-year, 1 percent increase in the sales tax for purchases both in and out of the city limits. Now the City Council majority will decide what to do with the new revenue.

The ballot language and public informational forums provided by the city stated that the measure was intended “to maintain and improve public services, including neighborhood police patrols, firefighter staffing, gang enforcement, crime and vandalism prevention, street improvements, community and recreational services, park upgrades, reduction of long-term liabilities (which includes a potential savings of $21 million in interest payments), and other general city services, shall the measure establishing an additional maximum 1 percent sales tax, ending in 15 years, and estimated to generate $4,800,000 annually, be adopted?”

You will note that “reduction of long-term liabilities (aka CalPERS retirement plan payments) was the last thing listed. This gave voters, including me, the idea that improving public services would be the first thing on the list.

But, maybe not. On Aug. 22 of last year, Councilman Dirk Starbuck, who was proposing the additional tax, asked this question: “Is it true that whatever the new tax generates will be needed to add to the existing payments to CalPERS?”

The staff answered: “You’re right ... the new numbers for the minimum payment are $3 million and it’s creeping up to $3.6 million; it will probably take two to three years before the amount we’re getting from the new tax will be equal that we have to pay CalPERS. The minimum payment will be equal to what the tax generates shortly.” Starbuck: “I think it’s important for people are aware that if the tax passes you will not see anything change in the city other than our debt will be sustainable with our retirement.”

I have searched the budget documents and the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and can find no comprehendible discussion of the amount of the CalPERS payment in either the general fund or enterprise fund sections. You would think that this type of expenditure would be a part of the budget. Maybe it’s buried in the “salaries and benefits” portion of each departments budget.

In the interest of transparency, I think that both the council and citizens have a right to know how much they are “contributing” toward employee retirement plans each year. After all, when you contribute to your Social Security account you know how much you give every week.

Considering the current stock market turmoil and the poor performance history of CalPERS investments, the contribution will surely go up significantly this year. According to a February article in The Sacramento Bee, “CalPERS is about 70 percent funded, meaning it has about 70 percent of the assets it would need to pay all its short- and long-term liabilities. The value of California’s largest public pension fund dropped by at least 

$15 billion this week as U.S. and international markets fell amid coronavirus fears.”

But, unlike our own personal retirement fund losses, CalPERS can simply pass on their losses to all their member governments, which include cities like Lompoc and ultimately taxpayers like you and me.

So, the idea from the start, at least in Councilman Starbuck’s mind, was to use the tax exclusively to pay down the CalPERS debt. It was only after later discussing how to place the measure on the ballot that staff recommended making it a “general tax” instead of a “special tax.”

The city manager was clear that the consulting firm would not be ready to provide an objective analysis of various options for the April 7 meeting and that they may not be available for at least a month. So, it was just common sense to delay the discussion. Mayor Jenelle Osborne then made a motion to continue the item until the staff could better analyze the rapidly changing economic situation, which was initially supported by a majority of the council.

Councilman Jim Mosby insisted that they press ahead with this discussion during the April 7 meeting, and he was supported by Councilmen Dirk Starbuck and Victor Vega who miraculously changed their minds in the middle of the discussion!  

This clearly demonstrates why these three councilmen are not equipped to discuss serious matters. They are willing to sacrifice the quality of the information needed to make a decision on this issue in favor of a predetermined outcome that was hatched prior to the election. 

Only Mayor Osborne and Councilwoman Gilda Cordova wanted a clearer understanding of the issue before making any decisions. Whatever Councilmen Mosby, Starbuck, and Vega do, they should remember that the 68 percent of voters who supported the tax will also vote in the November election. If they do not improve public services, voters will probably hold them accountable.

Last year when only 57 percent of voters supported the legalization of cannabis, the council bent over backwards to accommodate them; they should act with equal vigor to honor the wishes of 68 percent of voters who supported the need to improve public services.

If the council majority decides to use the entire amount of the increased revenue for CalPERS, that could be construed as a classic bait-and-switch move on their part. This would also be a serious breach of public trust.

If you voted for this tax measure, call or email the council members and express your opinion about how these funds should be used. 

Ron Fink writes from Lompoc. Send comments through the editor at clanham@santamariasun.com or email a letter for publication to letters@santamariasun.com








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