Funding for police, firefighter pay before voters

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comJuly 24, 2013 

— An extension to divert a portion of a half-cent sales tax for the salaries of eight first responders heads to voters in November.

The City Council voted 4-0 Wednesday to place an extension of Measure A on the ballot. Councilman Tom Faria was absent due to a death in his family.

Passed in 2009 with 82 percent of the vote, Measure A allows salaries of police officers and firefighters, which usually come out of the city's general fund, to be paid through a 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, which pays for the salaries of six police officers and two firefighters, sunsets in 2014. The half-cent sales tax continues, but the extension allows for the money to continue to be diverted to the salaries of the first responders.

"(It's) something (Police Chief) Gary (Brizzee) and I were hoping we wouldn't have to do over the next couple years. Unfortunately, Los Banos hasn't gotten back where it needs to be so we can move forward with the general fund taking care of both police and firefighters," Fire Chief Chet Guintini said.

The recession in the past decade hit Los Banos hard, with declines in property and sales tax revenue. At the peak of the housing market downturn, some city officials estimated that 35 percent of homes in town were going through foreclosure. The city also saw Lowe's home improvement and two car dealerships fold. Car lots are typically a city's biggest sales tax revenue generators.

Extending Measure A will not raise taxes.

Guintini and Brizzee said an extension is critical to their departments continuing to serve the public. Guintini said 69 percent of Fire Department calls involve medical aid.

"We're trying to maintain the services we're providing today. We're not looking to add anyone," Guintini said.

According to police, there are more than 600 documented gang members and associates in Los Banos.

"Unfortunately, much of the violent crime in our city is gang-related. Maintaining gang and drug prevention programs is vital to keeping our neighborhoods, schools and parks safe," Brizzee said.

The city will ask voters to extend Measure A for up to seven years. Guintini said he believes Measure A will not need to be used that long, but that time period was agreed to so the city won't have to repeatedly ask for extensions.

City Manager Steve Carrigan said although the details are not worked out yet, he will provide a plan for how the city will gradually move the salaries of the eight emergency services personnel back into the general fund.

The extension for Measure A will cost the city $32,000 to place on the ballot and $85,000 in political consultant services, totaling $117,000.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove said she believes, as in 2009, the measure will garner more than enough votes to reach the two-thirds majority it needs for passage.

"I have the utmost respect for our public safety department. I'm confident that the voters will become educated again this time. knowing that it's not a new tax increase, but that it is essential," Stonegrove said.

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