Questioning qualifications

I just finished reading Nick Diamantides’s Oct. 19 cover article “Signature drive continues for proposed initiative to require two-thirds vote for taxes.” I am confused. The article leads you to believe all city fees, taxes, assessments, will be subject a two-thirds registered voter’s approval if the “charter change” makes it to the ballot and passes. Does this vote require a two-thirds approval? Ms. Churchill said state law would preclude fee and assessment from this charter change. Who is right? I also understand Ms. Churchill wrote the proposed “city charter” change. Is she a lawyer? What specialty, and is she qualified in state and municipal law?

Devon R. Austin
Signal Hill

Letters to the Editor
One comment on “Questioning qualifications
  1. In response to Signal Hill Commissioner Austin’s inquiry about my qualification to address the legal issues in the Taxpayers Right to Know and Vote:

    Yes, I am a licensed attorney both in California and Washington. I have been in private practice since 1983. I earned a Legal Specialization from the State Bar of California in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law. The State Bar does not certify specialists in the field of municipal law, so any licensed attorney can practice in that field.

    I was fortunate enough to be trained in municipal law by for 7 years by the the City Attorney for Signal Hill. I served on both the Planning Commission and City Council for Signal HIll, and read everything the City Attorney prepared, and questioned him extensively, and challenged him on a regular basis when I questioned his legal conclusions or ethical positions.

    As to the confusion over when the 2/3 vote approval applies: Under state law, certain “fees” are exempt from voter approval. That leaves “non- exempt fees, taxes and assessment – like the ones you see on your property tax bill from the Sanitation District – subject to voter approval.

    Check out your property tax bill for the last 6 years. Your City Council, sitting as a special assessment district – Sanitation District 29- — transferred ownership of the sewer lines to the County. How much are you paying now and about 6 years ago? That increase in costs reflects the cash the city council is stashing away in “reserves” because it transferred to cost of the sewers to you.

    With the Council’s enactment of the Economic Development Ordinance this year, the Council stated that it is looking for new revenue sources to replace State Redevelopment Income. That is what I declaration of “clear intent”.

    Those sources of new revenues include new taxes and fees . You might remember the Utility User Tax the Council proposed a few years ago. Also it includes new property related fees: transfer of storm drain costs to property owners via the “clean beach, clean water” measure – the council voted to put on a County Ballot. Of course, that deal includes a cash “kickback” to the city from of your new property related fee. (I read the fine print of the contract)

    In addition, the City is looking at “bonds” to raise cash to subsidize future development. However, to pay back bonds, a guarantee has to be given to the lender. In the past the City has pledged “sales taxes” and former Redevelopment “tax increment”.

    Sales tax revenues have dropped substantially (see the 2011-2012 LA County Grand Jury Report) and there is no more tax increment coming to the City because the RDA was shut down.

    So what will the City pledge to guarantee repayment of the bonds? The answer is in the Economic Redevelopment Ordinance.

    Reading the Los Angeles Times for the last few months shows all the different ways Cities are looking to raise revenue. Even Signal Hill, having survived the Great Recession without cuts in executive salaries and the $1.5 annual legal fees paid to the City Attorney, knows that it has go to residents for new sources of “cash flow”.

    In fact, the League of California Cities held its 2012 seminar recently and put out a 20 page document explaining all the ways that cities can impose new fees. Tax on soft drinks. Transfer of maintenance costs to property owners. New city sales taxes. New utility taxes. Creation of Assessment Districts for businesses and new public facilities – like libraries.

    The bottom line is this. If you, like most residents, do not have the time to go to council meetings but you want to know what you are going to asked to pay, then it is in your best interest to see those proposed tax increases on the same ballot where your elected representatives are seeking your vote.

    Future elected representatives will have to engage in long term budget planning, recognize community participation in financial decisions that seek funds from the pockets of their constituents, and consider cutting excessive legal fees and executive salaries out of line with similar sized and funded communities.

    Remember, the Taxpayers Right to Know and Vote adds “NOTICE to VOTERS” to already existing revenue powers granted to the City Council.

    You are lucky to live in a small city where this type of proposal is possible through the efforts of people willing to go door to door and engage the public. Residents living in big cities are at a financial disadvantage to acquire the “right to know and vote” in their communities.

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