Measure A sales tax extension hovers around passage as votes trickle in

As City Council and school board races hang in the balance on every update from county election officials, so to does the impactful Measure A sales-tax extension that could determine the financial direction of Long Beach in the coming decade.

So far preliminary results showed Measure A perilously close to not reaching the 50% plus one threshold that it needs to pass. That outcome could throw a wrench in the plans of lawmakers who have budgeted out infrastructure projects and public safety pension payments off of the roughly $70 million the tax increase has generated annually.

Measure A originally cruised to victory in 2016, but it’s since met stiff resistance from groups like the Long Beach Reform Coalition, whose candidates performed well in the election on a message of challenging the City Hall status quo.

City leaders, however, remained optimistic there will be positive news for those who campaigned in favor of Measure A being extended. Wednesday morning, Mayor Robert Garcia said the measure has trended toward passage as new votes are slowly tallied.

There are likely thousands if not tens of thousands of votes still left to be tabulated so the final vote count could be days or weeks away. The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder, which struggled with extremely long wait times Tuesday night, is set to provide periodic updates to vote tallies leading up to the April 3 certification deadline

As of the latest updated Wednesday evening, the measure was still virtually deadlocked with a separation of only 29 votes: 27,104 in favor and 27,133 against.

Measure A was originally approved by voters in 2016 under the assumption that it would be phased out after ten years. The 1% increase to the city’s sales tax, which put Long Beach at the state maximum, was sold as a way to address a backlog of infrastructure projects and maintenance as well as bolstering staffing levels of the city’s first responders.

It was set to sunset in January 2027.

However, last year the City Council voted to place the measure back on the ballot, this time asking Long Beach voters to extend it indefinitely. The rationale used by civic leaders and Garcia, who has served as the face of the campaign, was that if the city did not extend Measure A it would likely be replaced by another county or regional tax.

In countless mailers sent to voters ahead of Tuesday’s election Measure A was cast as a solution to a number of the city’s issues. Want more police and fire? Vote yes on A. Want to help solve the homelessness issue? Measure A is your tax.

The re-opening of Community Hospital, which was shuttered because of seismic issues due to its location on a fault line, was also one of the things that Measure A is scheduled to help happen.

In October 2019 the City Council agreed to enter into a long-term lease with the Molina-Wu Network where the site would be leased to Molina-Wu for $1 a year and the city would split the cost of expected $50 million in retrofitting costs. (John Molina is a founding partner in Pacific 6, the parent company of the Long Beach Post.)

Community Hospital Long Beach in Long Beach. City leaders say that extending Measure A could secure the funding needed to pay the city’s half of the seismic retrofit needed to reopen the facility. File photo by Thomas R Cordova.

A large chunk of that money could come from Measure A dollars. Daryl Supernaw, the councilman who represents the district where Community Hospital is located, and where millions of other Measure A funds have trickled into street, park and public safety improvements, said that Measure A has been invaluable to the district.

“It’s been huge for the 4th and I don’t want to see the momentum that has been in motion in the district stopped, or even worse, reversed,” Supernaw said.

While noting that he’s never been big on additional taxes, Supernaw said he is concerned at what might play out at City Hall as staff starts preparing for the end of Measure A if it were to be defeated at the end of the vote tallying.

“When you know the water is going to run out you turn the faucet off to start saving,” Supernaw said. “The mentality [inside City Hall] really could shift to that of austerity measures.”

Supernaw was careful to say that regardless of what happens with Measure A that Community Hospital would still remain a top priority when it comes to funding for the City Council.

In its first three years of existence, the tax has helped the city finance road repairs and renovations of aging public buildings and community centers. It has also helped finance police academies and restore some staff positions that had been lost during the recession.

In the last fiscal year, the city pledged over $32 million to either restore or maintain police and fire staffing levels in the city including bringing back East Long Beach’s Engine 17. Over the next few years, Measure A is also slated to play a role in re-opening Fire Station 9 in Bixby Knolls, which was shuttered due to an ongoing mold issue. The cost of purchasing a new site is projected to cost $13 million to $20 million.

Losing a revenue source of roughly $70 million annually could be huge for the city that is still struggling to get back to the pre-recession staffing levels for public safety and to repair its roads which includes a growing backlog of degrading streets.

Balancing the budget—accounting for a $70 million hole—could mean less public safety personnel and worse streets, but it could also mean higher unfunded pension obligations and less ancillary programming like park programs and community activities, which are seemingly always on the chopping block at the end of the city’s budget cycle.

While Councilman Al Austin did not campaign for the Measure A extension, the reopening of Fire Station 9 remains an important issue as he likely heads to a November runoff. Austin said that Measure A going away could lead to some serious belt tightening.

“We’d definitely have to reassess,” Austin said. “But I’m not really ready to say that it will impact our district one way or another. But it would likely impact infrastructure projects across the city.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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