In Orange County, the Westminster City Council is putting a tax measure on the November ballot

The extension of a sales tax that has been credited with keeping Westminster financially afloat moved forward after residents berated city officials for years of indecision.

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

The sales tax, called Measure SS, has brought in $81.5 million since it was first passed in 2016. Money from the tax makes up about a quarter of the city’s operating budget, funding of the city’s staff and services. If voters do not approve his extension, it will expire on December 31.

The deadline to put items on the ballot was Friday at 5 p.m. Without the tax, the city is projected to be bankrupt by 2024, even with drastic cuts.

Those cuts would likely result in closed parks, unpaved streets and the elimination of youth and senior programs, as well as staff layoffs, including a 33 percent reduction in the police force in a city that for years has ‘a scarce workforce, said the City Council. Manager Christine Cordon.

In May, the City Council voted unanimously to approve 10 percent raises for many city employees starting July 1, which represents a budget increase of $2.7 million l next year Officials say the raises were a necessary step to retain staff who are concerned about the city’s finances and leave for better-paying jobs elsewhere.

On Friday, Mayor Tri Ta, Vice Mayor Carlos Manzo and Councilmen 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 looked doomed, with four votes needed to put it on the ballot and only Manzo and Ho in favor.

“Residents know what’s at stake,” Manzo said at a meeting that ran into Thursday morning. “They have the right to vote if our parks continue to be maintained. They have the right to 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”.

He said he thinks residents should vote on the issue. He pointed to potential cuts to public safety services, adding that police officers are already being transferred to other cities because of 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 positions after hearing from 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 Vietnamese-majority council more than a decade ago was a proud milestone.

But in recent years, public meetings have been marred by fights between City Council members.

“They fight so hard, and that’s the reason we’re where we are,” said Diana Carey, a former council member who heads a citizen committee that oversees the sales tax. “They are afraid to vote on anything substantive because they feel that the rest of the people in the council will use it against them. But we have to keep the lights on here.”

A survey of Westminster residents in 2020 found widespread support for the sales tax, with 60% in favor of the renewal, 29% opposed and 11% undecided.

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

On Friday, their fears about the city’s future turned to anger at councilors who had declined to take a stand.

“You work for us,” resident Roger Mindrum said. “What you have done by not voting for this and abstaining is pure cowardice. You are acting like tyrants and you are making a mockery of the city”.

The city’s precarious finances are not entirely the fault of the current council. Proposition 13, approved by California voters in 1978, blocked Westminster on below-average property tax returns. The foundations of financial problems were also laid decades ago as a result of an over-reliance on state redevelopment funds.

Ta, who is running for the state Assembly, said when he voted for the sales tax six years ago, he never intended it to be a permanent solution.

City staff have proposed other revenue-generating ideas, including annexing unincorporated county land to Westminster, electronic billboards, opening a city gas station and establishing vendor kiosks in Civic centre. The council has made no progress on these proposals.

Do, who is running for mayor against Nguyen, 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 has been done.”

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


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About the Author: Chaz Cutler

My name is Chasity. I love to follow the stock market and financial news!