Thursday, May 30, 2002
In the next couple of weeks, Salinas City Manager Dave Mora will release a draft budget recommending $8.6 million in budget cuts-a post-tax-repeal reduction in city services should voters decide to roll back the city''s six-percent utility tax.
In November''s election, Salinas voters will choose whether or not to phase out the city''s tax on gas, electricity, water, cable and telephone services by 2005. The tax contributes $9,200,000, or 14.3 percent of the city''s General Fund Revenues.
Repeal the tax, say city officials, and expect fewer cops on the streets and fewer fire fighters on duty. Libraries and recreations centers will close, and parks won''t be maintained.
It''s a grim picture. And voters will see just how grim in early June, when the draft of Salinas''s 2002-2003 budget is released, says assistant City Manager Jorge Rifa.
"The utility users tax really funds a number of essential services here that define quality of life," Rifa says. "We have to pay competitive wages to recruit and train our police force. We have a tremendous need for recreational services to keep our young people occupied.
"If we loose this revenue, we''re going to significantly impair the city''s ability to pay for those quality-of-life services, and we''re also going to affect public safety."
City officials say they''ll need to make drastic, across-the-board cuts to city services if the tax, which costs residents $8 to $12 a month, is repealed.
Utility tax opponents, such as the initiative''s author, Mark Dierolf, say the city will manage just fine without the extra funds, although they''ve yet to produce any numbers to validate their point.
"[Phasing out the tax] is not going to have the affect they say it is going to have," Dierolf says. "That''s ridiculous. This tax is harmful. People are being hurt by this tax."
But lately, more Salinas residents are disagreeing with Dierolf. They say they''ll pay the extra money to keep cops on the streets and parks open for their kids.
"The thing I love about the utility tax-and as a business woman it kills me to say those words-is that every dime is spent locally. It''s different from all these other moneys with strings attached," says Brigid McGrath Massie, a speaker and author.
Massie, who has lived in Salinas for 22 years, says until recently she didn''t know much about the utility tax.
"As someone who lives here and takes it for granted, a lot of city services are so invisible," she says. "I live half a block from an elementary school. I didn''t know till two months ago that all of the crossing guards are paid for by the city.
"I''m not interested in gutting the police department and the fire department just to see if it hurts people."
Salinas already raises less money per capita than other area cities, Rifa says.
"When you look at the Salinas budget and look at revenue per capita, for the fiscal year 2000-2001, Salinas generated $430 per capita to provide services to our residents," Rifa says.
In that same time period Monterey generated $1,375 per capita.
"Monterey is in a fortunate position," says Dennis Donohue, general manager for European Vegetable Specialties Farms. "The tourism and the occupancy tax create a bit of a windfall. Salinas is on the other side of the coin. The utility tax is a pretty meaningful deal-too big of a hit. And no one has even begun to discuss what this means in terms of the state''s budget shortfall."
In earlier interviews, Mora said in a worst-case scenario, the state''s $23.6 billion budget shortfall could cost Salinas $4.5 million annually.
"At the end of the day, do you or don''t you want a city to provide anything above and beyond public safety?" Donohue asks. "My answer is yes."
The city''s already running on a bare-bones budget, says union organizer Sergio Sanchez, who recently announced he''ll run for a city council seat in November. "There''s no fat to trim."
"If people think gangs are a problem now, just wait until there are no libraries, no recreational facilities, no parks, no homework centers for the kids. Once these services are gone, where will the kids go?
"I think there''s this belief that [tax payers] need additional relief," Sanchez says. "To me, repealing the utility tax would mean $9 more a month in my pocket. If I can get a library, and parks and recreation for my kids, I''ll pay that nine bucks and I''ll double it."