Long Beach City Hall. Photo by Thomas Cordova

Should Long Beach permanently extend its 1% sales tax increase to help fund street and sidewalk repairs, public safety jobs and the reopening of Community Hospital?

Voters will decide that question when they head to the ballots on March 3.

In one of the largest infrastructure investments in the city’s history, voters in 2016 passed the temporary Measure A, which raises the city’s sales tax by 1% until the year 2022; it then drops to half a percent before ending in 2027.

While the measure is expected to generate nearly half a billion dollars over 10 years, city leaders say they will need additional funds in the future to maintain public safety and infrastructure.

Proponents say a permanent extension of Measure A is vital to support police and fire services and help the city to continue its program to fix streets, roads and alleyways. Opponents argue that there is no legal guarantee of how the money will be spent and that the funds will largely go to pensions and pay raises.

Writing the official ballot argument in favor of the measure, Mayor Robert Garcia, Police Chief Robert Luna and Fire Chief Xavier Espino noted that Measure A does not raise taxes but maintains the city’s current tax rate. While the city has completed many projects with Measure A funds, Long Beach still has $2.6 billion in infrastructure needs, they said.

“Many of our streets, sidewalks and alleys are in desperate need of repair,” they wrote. “We need to continue the upgrade of our water systems for conservation and storm drains for neighborhood and water quality.”

The city has 13 major infrastructure projects planned for fiscal year 2020 for a total of $19.5 million.

In their official ballot argument against Measure A, writers and members of the Long Beach Reform Coalition Corliss Lee, Joseph Weinstein and Carlos Ovalle called the sales tax extension is a “blank check for City Hall.”

“In order to take your money, they refused to tell you this was a tax, and that it’s a sales tax whose burden is heaviest on those who can least afford it,” they wrote. “This is a regressive tax on the most basic goods and services to live, and it is a devastating tax for our troubled retail and restaurant small business sector.”

Under the new proposal, Measure A would permanently extend the 1% sales tax increase, except for a five-year period from 2023 to 2027 when the tax would drop to .75% to adjust for a county tax.

The change would mean the city’s sales tax would remain at the state cap of 10.25%.

Long Beach at one point had one of the highest sales tax rates in the state after it initially passed Measure A in 2016, but dozens of other cities have since caught up. In April of last year, 51 cities across the state saw sales tax increases, with more cities expected to jump on board this year.

California’s minimum rate of 7.25% is the highest in the United States. But many cities, like Long Beach, have now raised their taxes to the state’s maximum cap of 10.25%.

In addition to Long Beach, about two dozen other cities, including Glendale, Santa Monica and Pasadena, are all at the state maximum.

Mayor Garcia, in an interview last year, said that if Measure A fails, the city’s sales tax would likely remain at the state cap because of other proposed county ballot measures that could raise Long Beach’s sales tax.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), for example, is considering a one-half cent sales tax measure in Los Angeles County to pay for clean-air projects.

“We have to decide if we want the money to stay here in Long Beach,” he said. “If we don’t do this now that gap will be filled by somebody else and those dollars will be sent to the AQMD or another agency.”

Proponents said the Measure A extension would also facilitate the reopening of Community Hospital, which would improve paramedic response times.

The East Long Beach hospital shuttered last summer due to seismic compliance issues, closing the area’s only emergency room. Under an agreement with operator Molina, Wu, Network, the city would pay up to $25 million over the next 15 years to help retrofit the 94-year-old facility.

Opponents argue that the seismic costs of reopening Community Hospital are still unknown and the funds will be wasted.

“City Council can spend it on anything, including pay raises, unreformed pensions, and money-wasting boondoggles,” they wrote.