Tax to fund public safety before voters

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comApril 5, 2013 

In November voters will have to decide whether they want to extend a portion of the half-cent sales tax that funds the salaries of public safety.

On Wednesday the City Council voted to place a redirection of sales tax dollars on the ballot. The council also decided to hire the Oakland-based consulting firm Lew Edwards Group to help plan the campaign.

In 2009, Measure A was approved by 82 percent of the electorate. It allows salaries of police officers and firefighters, which usually come out of the city’s general fund, to be paid through the half-cent sales tax approved in 2004, known as Measure P. The portion of the Measure P monies being used for salaries and benefits were previously being saved to build a new police station and firefighter training tower. Measure A sunsets in January. The proposed extension would allow the city to keep Measure A in place for up to seven years.

Police Chief Gary Brizzee said Measure A has allowed his department to maintain its coverage of the city.

“We’ve obviously done more with less, but it would be devastating if we didn’t have Measure A,” Brizzee said.

Los Banos has seen an increase in “significant” crime, and the extension is needed for police to keep up with the uptick, Brizzee said. He said he has six officers being paid through Measure A. The department has downsized because of the declining property and sales tax dollars brought on by the housing market collapse of the past decade. At the peak of the housing market crisis, some city officials estimated that 35 percent of homes in town were in foreclosure.

The Los Banos Police Department has 36 sworn officers. In 2006, there were 48 law enforcement positions.

Fire Chief Chet Guintini said he has two fire captains whose salaries come from Measure A funding.

The Fire Department relies mostly on volunteers, but Guintini said being able to use the sales tax dollars for salaries has meant a lot. “Most people don’t realize we respond to five to six calls a day,” Guintini said. “Volunteers can’t do that and earn a living.”

Guintini said although the training tower has been delayed by the diversion of Measure A money, his department has enough fire stations to service the city. Guintini said the state standard is to have a station for each 1.5 mile radius. He said as the city grows, there will be a need for a fire station on Pioneer Road.

Brizzee said his department has a separate capital improvements budget, which is used for maintenance and repairs. However, he said it will be some time before a new police station can be built. The Fifth Street station police now use was built in the 1960s. Brizzee said he is more worried about personnel.

“What good are facilities if we don’t have people to go in them,” Brizzee said.

City officials said they are hopeful that Measure A is not needed for an additional seven full years.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Stone said she’s been told by experts that the economy will bounce back, but not soon enough.

“I don’t see it in the next year or two. What we’re told is it’s going to be a slow recovery,” she said.

Enterprise staff writer Corey Pride can be reached at 388-6563 or cpride@losbanosenterprise.com.

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