Permanent sales tax heads toward 2020 ballot as leaders move to declare fiscal emergency

Measure A, the 10-year sales tax increase that was approved by Long Beach voters in 2016, could become permanent after the City Council voted Tuesday night to begin the process of putting the issue on the ballot again in March 2020.

With little dissent from the public, the council on Tuesday gave direction to staff to write an ordinance declaring a fiscal emergency, the first step in the process of potentially putting a permanent extension of Measure A on the ballot.

The ordinance is expected to come back to the council for approval in mid-July.

Mayor Robert Garcia said that for him, the choice was simple. He wants to extend the tax so the city can continue to invest in public safety and infrastructure improvements. If the city doesn’t extend it Garcia said the taxpayers face the prospect of shipping their tax dollars out to a county or regional tax increase, which are under consideration for votes next year.

“Everyone is looking at doing additional measures in the November ballot,” Garcia said. “Long Beach voters will not be paying any more tax if Measure A passes, but if it doesn’t, their tax money will be going to other agencies which would be a loss for our community, which I think for some folks is the bigger issue.”

If the tax measure comes before voters in March 2020—which will also include four City Council races and a presidential primary vote—it would need a simple majority to pass. Measure A in 2016 received over 60% of support.

Measure A, which boosted the city’s sales tax by 1% for six years before dropping to a half-percent for the remaining four years, will sunset in 2027. The funds were to be dedicated to one-time infrastructure needs like street and park improvements and as well as to public safety.

The city has used the money to bolster the ranks of its fire and police departments adding over 40 new positions through police academies, restoration of fire and paramedic units that were part of previous cuts, and by financing 108 existing positions in the city. It has also invested in projects like the Houghton Park Community Center, the Red Car Greenbelt park and over 230 lane miles of street repairs.

Councilmembers said the investments have revitalized rusted playgrounds, replaced sagging roofs, and in North Long Beach, cut emergency response times as Measure A funds helped to resurrect a previously shuttered rescue unit in the city’s fire department.

Councilman Rex Richardson, who represents North Long Beach, said the city’s public safety systems are a sum of its own parts. While the addition of a rescue unit in the north helped his district, restoring another engine made the whole system stronger, he said. He pushed for the city to do the same in approving Measure A again so the city could continue to invest in the public’s health and safety.

“The addition of Engine 8 and the restoration of Rescue 12 brought our response times down by three entire minutes,” Richardson said.

In total, the measure has funded about $88 million on non-public safety projects over the past three years.

However, ongoing costs like salaries will create a shortfall when the tax sunsets in 2027; the tax supports about 150 fire, police and support personnel positions. The city is also staring down the prospect of having to renegotiate a number of their large contracts this year including its police, fire fighters and city employees.

Long Beach is currently at the state maximum for local taxes (10.25%) and will remain there until 2023 when Measure A is cut in half. The city has yet to pay into Measure H, a .25% countywide tax to fund services for those experiencing homelessness, because of its being at the maximum rate.

Under the proposed Measure A extension, the city would drop its rate by a quarter between 2023 and 2027 to pay into the Measure H funds, something it has benefited from since revenue started being distributed. After that, Measure A would increase again to a full percentage point.

Without a unanimous vote in mid-July, the issue could be pushed to a later ballot, potentially November 2020, when other agencies are considering tax measures. The Southern California Air Quality Management District is considering a one-half cent sales tax measure to pay for clean-air projects that could still keep the city at the state maximum through 2027.

But it’s unclear what would happen if Measure A and the AQMD or another county tax measure were to be placed on the same ballot and all or some passed that would put Long Beach over the state cap of 10.25%.

“We’re all competing for that same amount,” said Assistant City Manager Tom Modica. “If they get to the ballot first and voters approve that, the tax that the voters would pay would be the same amount, but actually it wouldn’t stay local, it would go to a different entity.”

City estimates put the revenue generated by Measure A at about $60 million annually through the 2022 fiscal year before the tax rate is cut in half. The last four years of the tax are expected to generate around $31 million annually.

A staff report said that roughly half of the tax is currently used to fund public safety positions and that the looming sunset date in 2027 could be at risk of elimination. Among the needs outlined by the city are $25 million needed to help re-open Community Hospital and roughly $1 billion for road and sidewalk repairs.

“This council has made the initial decision to move forward with that [Community Hospital] which we fully support, but it came without any revenue,” Modica said. “We do not have a solution on how to pay for that $25 million, and without additional solutions we’re likely facing other service reductions to make that a priority.”

The 2020 primary election which would include the Measure A extension is scheduled for March 3.

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