In Orange County, Westminster City Council stakes tax measures on November election – Los Angeles Times | Vette Leader

The expansion of a sales tax credited with keeping Westminster afloat financially has been pushed ahead after years of residents chiding city officials for indecisiveness.

On Friday, four out of five City Council members agreed to put a measure on the November ballot calling on voters to renew the 1% sales tax for the next 20 years.

Dubbed Measure SS, the sales tax has raised $81.5 million since its inception in 2016. Money from the tax accounts for about a quarter of the city’s operating budget, and funds staff and city services. If voters don’t agree to his extension, it will expire on December 31.

The deadline for submitting items on the ballot ended at 5 p.m. Friday. Without the tax, the city is expected to be bankrupt by 2024, even with drastic cuts.

Those cuts would likely result in closed parks, unpaved roads and the scrapping of youth and senior citizen programs, as well as layoffs, including a 33 percent reduction in police forces in a city that has been working understaffed for years, City Executive Secretary Christine Cordon said.

In May, the city council voted unanimously to approve 10% pay rises for many city employees beginning July 1, equating to a $2.7 million budget increase next year. Officials say the raises were a necessary step to keep employees worried about the city’s finances moving to better-paying jobs elsewhere.

On Friday, Mayor Tri Ta, Vice Mayor Carlos Manzo and Councilors Kimberly Ho and Chi Charlie Nguyen voted to put the sales tax on the ballot. Councilor Tai Do abstained.

Earlier in the week, the tax seemed doomed as it took four votes to get it on the ballot and only Manzo and Ho were in favor.

“Residents know what’s at stake,” Manzo said at a meeting that lasted into early Thursday morning. “They have one vote if our parks continue to be tended. You have a vote if our senior services are cut. We must do what we were elected to do – protect our residents and put their needs ahead of our political ambitions.”

Ho said she believes residents should vote on the issue. She pointed to possible cuts in public safety services, adding that police officers were already being moved to other cities due to Westminster’s uncertain finances.

The council decided to meet again the next day to make a final decision.

At Friday’s meeting, Ta and Nguyen said they changed their position after hearing from local residents. Ta said he would only support putting the tax on the ballot if there was a 20-year sunset.

In Westminster, a city of more than 90,000 that is home to Little Saigon, the election of a majority Vietnamese council more than a decade ago was a proud milestone.

But in recent years, public gatherings have been punctuated by arguments between city council members.

“They fight so much, and that’s why we’re here,” said Diana Carey, a former council member who heads a citizens’ committee that oversees sales tax. “They’re afraid to vote on anything substantial because they think the other people on the council will use it against them. But we have to leave the light on here.”

A 2020 poll of Westminster residents found broad support for the sales tax, with 60% in favor of extending it, 29% against and 11% undecided.

During roughly four hours of public commentary over the course of the two meetings this week, dozens of residents spoke out in favor of extending the tax measure.

On Friday, her worries about the city’s future turned to anger at council members who had refused to comment.

“They work for us,” said resident Roger Mindrum. “What you have done by not voting and abstaining is sheer cowardice. You behave like tyrants and turn the city into a mockery.”

The city’s precarious finances aren’t entirely the fault of the current council. Proposal 13, passed by California voters in 1978, forced Westminster to submit subpar property tax returns. The cornerstone for the financial problems was also laid decades ago by over-dependence on state restructuring funds.

Ta, who is running for state assembly, said when he voted for VAT six years ago, he never intended it to be a permanent solution.

City officials have suggested other ideas to generate revenue, including the annexation of unincorporated land in Westminster, electronic billboards, the opening of a city petrol station and the establishment of stalls in the Civic Centre. The Council has made no progress on these proposals.

Do, who is running against Nguyen for mayor, said voters approved the tax the first time with the understanding that the council would help transform the city’s finances. But, he said, “nothing was done.”

“I don’t have the guts to ask taxpayers to keep giving us more money so we can keep fighting,” he said.

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