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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 12th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 28

Panelists debate necessity of increased public safety sales tax at community forum

By Kasey Bubnash

Things got heated–and a little off-topic–at a recent debate on the city's proposed sales tax increase.

At the forum, which was hosted on Sept. 6 by the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley, panelists debated the benefits and costs of Measure U2018, a ballot measure that, if approved, would increase the city's sales tax in an effort to fund public safety services. 

At the event, panelists Russ Mengel, a sergeant with the Santa Maria Police Department, and Gale McNeeley, a community activist and founder of Youth Arts Alive, wholeheartedly disagreed on a number of Measure U-related issues. They also touched on other topics, including recreational cannabis and youth needs, while spatting over written questions from some of the nearly 30 audience members in attendance. 

Measure U2018, which would raise an existing Santa Maria sales tax and extend its deadline indefinitely, will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Most of the money produced by the ballot measure would go toward public safety efforts.

While Mengel said Measure U would support much-needed public safety services as the city struggles to recover from its $8.5 million budgetary deficit, McNeeley questioned the motives behind and necessity of the measure. 

"Safety is not the only thing we need," McNeeley said at the forum, which was held at the Betteravia Government Center. 

The Santa Maria City Council voted unanimously on July 3 to put Measure U2018, the Public Safety and Essential Services Measure, on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. The measure, according to a city staff report, would extend the existing sales tax approved by voters in 2012 and increase it from .25 to 1 percent. 

If passed, the increased tax is expected to generate about $18 million annually, all of which city officials say would go toward maintaining local public safety and "quality of life" services.

The current .25 percent tax, Measure U2012, produces nearly $5 million in local funding each year, City Manager Jason Stilwell said at the City Council meeting on July 3. The measure funds 27 public safety positions, Stilwell said, along with five other city positions, and has helped the city deter gang violence, lower crime rates, and improve emergency response times. 

The existing rate is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021, and Stilwell said Measure U2018 would both expand that deadline and increase funding indefinitely. Without a sunset provision, the hiked sales tax would stay in place until community members choose to vote it out. 

At the Sept. 6 debate, McNeeley took issue with the open-endedness of the proposed measure and its massive focus on public safety. 

While roughly 90 percent of the measure's profits would be used to support the city's safety efforts, McNeeley said the tax would do little to address Santa Maria's dilapidated downtown and lack of youth-oriented programs. He also said it would hit local small businesses hardest. 

"More of the money could be used for youth," McNeeley said, acknowledging that some of the revenue would go toward kids' programs. "The city could sit down with all of the youth organizations and say, 'What are your needs and what will get you to support our measure?'" 

But instead of asking community members for their genuine input on Santa Maria's greatest needs, McNeeley said the city paid a polling company $25,000 to create a pair of surveys in favor of support for increased public safety services. 

In the surveys–one of which was an 18-minute phone interview that the private polling company conducted with 460 Santa Maria residents, and the other a written questionnaire that more than 800 residents completed–locals were asked to share what they thought the city needed more of. 

In both surveys, city officials said residents listed gang suppression and crime prevention efforts, prompt 911 response times, fully staffed fire stations, and the continuation of at-risk youth programs as their top priorities.

But the questions, McNeeley said, led only to answers the city wanted.

When an attendee asked why it cost the city so much to conduct a survey of so few residents, Mengel refuted McNeeley's claims. He said the professionally developed questionnaires were necessary to accurately assess the feasibility of getting a sales tax extension and increase passed. 

"Honestly, it was a good expenditure of funds," Mengel said. "If it had not occured, I could see it being more expensive to go out and try to get a consensus just based on local knowledge or expertise." 

Some questions submitted at the forum, including one about Santa Maria's recreational cannabis prohibition, led the panelists slightly astray throughout the debate. But despite the lively discussion egged on by a hot crowd, the audience grew somber during closing arguments, when Mengel listed the city's recent crime statistics: 35 murders in the last six years, 240 forcible rapes and 741 robberies in the last five, and more than 800 calls for fire service just last week. 

The manpower required to investigate many crimes is vast, Mengel said. Some detectives are still assigned to homicide cases dating back as far as 2015 and are expected to be tied up in court for at least two years. 

"Some work has to be done in this community," Mengel said. "We want to see downtown be viable, but it's going to come through public safety. It's going to take cleanup, it's going to take enforcement, and it's also going to take nontraditional resources to help address some of the issues that exist in that area." 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at

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