During an emotionally charged and highly contentious meeting, the Signal Hill City Council voted unanimously (5-0) on Tuesday, Feb. 18 to pass a resolution in opposition to the controversial “Taxpayers’ Right to Know and Vote” that will be on the June 3 election ballot.
If passed by voters, the initiative would “fundamentally alter the management of the city’s municipal finances and budget planning,” said City Manager Ken Farfsing, who signed a staff report supporting the opposition to the initiative.
Citing a report from an independent consultant that was presented to the Council last November, Farfsing said the initiative would shift power for managing city finances from city staff and the elected Council to voters, adding that, over time, the law would “impact the City’s ability to recover costs for services and potentially erode public safety.”
“The expert found that voters would be responsible for making many complicated, technical and interrelated fiscal decisions,” Farfsing said. “If it were to pass, the initiative would reduce the ability of the elected City Council and city staff to manage the city’s budget and fiscal affairs.”
Carol Churchill, a lawyer, former councilmember and member of Signal Hill Community First, who drafted the initiative, denied claims made by the consultant and city staff, stating that the City is running a “fear campaign” in an attempt to “mislead the public.”
During public comment, Mayor Michael Noll imposed a three-minute time limit for speakers, however Churchill said the limit was an attempt to stifle the opposing side.
“Is there a reason why you have a three-minute [time limit] other than to shut me up?” she asked the mayor. “You just want to go home early?”
Sponsored by the watchdog group Signal Hill Community First, the initiative proposes to amend the City Charter to require a two-thirds majority vote for all city fees, taxes and assessments. In addition, all taxes and fees would sunset every 10 years, and all assessments would sunset every 20 years, requiring another two-thirds vote for re-authorization, according to the staff report.
Proponents had petitioned for the initiative as a way to increase transparency and give taxpayers more say in fiscal decisions, primarily after the Council passed a resolution seeking to provide economic incentives to future developers after the State abolished the City’s redevelopment agency.
However, city officials argue that the initiative’s language is too broad and goes far beyond its intended purpose, requiring costly special elections at $75,000 per election for fees that are routinely voted on by the Council, ranging from water rates to charges for library books to false burglar-alarm fees to vehicle-impound fees and recreation fees. Farfsing pointed out that the City Charter already requires that the City conduct public hearings and reviews for any economic-incentive proposals.
Proponents of the initiative, on the other hand, said the initiative is only meant to apply to “new fees, assessments and taxes,” adding that many of the fees and assessments would be exempt from the two-thirds voter-approval requirement under state laws, including propositions 218 and 26.
Still, City Attorney David Aleshire said it’s unclear whether certain fees and assessments would apply under the proposed initiative, adding that, since Signal Hill is a charter city, the City has the ability to impose more restrictions than what state laws require.
Regardless, city officials point out that if voters pass the initiative, it would most likely lead to increased legal fees for the City since there would likely be lawsuits brought forward to clarify interpretation of disputed provisions.
City officials pointed out that there are currently no legal precedents or cases that deal with such an initiative to help interpret the law.
Farfsing said independent consulting firm Urban Futures Inc., which was hired by the City to give an unbiased report on the initiative’s fiscal impacts on the city, concluded that the measure, if passed, would financially impact nearly every city department, primarily police, public works and community services.
The consultant found that the initiative has the potential to impact $2.1 million, or 13 percent, of the City’s General Fund and $3.5 million, or 100 percent, of the City’s water department. The consultant also found that the initiative would require the City to drastically change its budget process from a two-year budget cycle to a six-month budget cycle because of the “uncertainty created by the voting requirements for fees and assessments,” Farfsing said.
Moreover, the consultant indicated that the initiative would force the City to pay nearly $400,000 in additional staffing costs annually and would limit the City to 20-year bond payments instead of 30-year payments, in addition to creating other financial challenges for the City.
Another concern is whether the initiative would force a citywide vote on the California Crown Landscape and Lighting District, an area of 90 single-family homes that agreed to annual maintenance assessments.
Maria Harris, a member of Signal Hill Community First and proponent of the initiative, said Proposition 218 exempts the property-assessment district from the initiative, however city officials say the initiative “appears to broadly apply to the City’s assessment authority.”
Farfsing noted that many residents feel the City has done a good job with its finances and residents aren’t asking for any radical changes, citing the results of a community-satisfaction survey of 249 registered Signal Hill voters conducted between November and December of last year.
The survey results indicated that 75 percent of the residents interviewed agreed that the city is “going in the right direction.” Signal Hill received higher marks for resident satisfaction than most surrounding cities, according to the survey results.
While Churchill, Harris, Gloria Nava and Bob Mendoza, who are all members of Signal Hill Community First, spoke in favor of the measure, two residents spoke out against it, including Larry Blunden and Gary Dudley, who serves as a parks and recreation commissioner.
“It seems to me that this whole thing is taking the power and then turning it upside down,” Blunden said. “We elect you guys to make decisions for us, and not everybody has the ability to make decisions and knows all the details about running government. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Mayor Noll said the initiative, if passed by voters, would be the most restrictive initiative for a city government in California and the United States, adding that it would “paralyze” the city.
Vice Mayor Ed Wilson said the initiative would be “adding bureaucracy to bureaucracy,” since the proponents admit that Proposition 218 already requires that city governments conduct public hearings and permit residents to protest any tax increases. He said the last tax increase in Signal Hill was proposed for raising funds for a new municipal library that went to the voters and failed to pass. Councilmember Tina Hansen agreed, stating that the initiative would put the city in “ruin.”
Councilmember Lori Woods, who had originally signed the petition along with family members to support the initiative before she was elected last year, said she has since recanted her decision, adding that many of the initiative’s goals are already covered under city and state laws. Woods, who appeared to hold back tears, said it’s been a “difficult journey” and “humbling” experience.
City Treasurer Emerson Fersch, who said he also signed the petition, stated that he now opposes the initiative primarily because it would likely create more legal fees for the City in interpreting provisions of the initiative. However, Fersch spoke out against Mayor Noll imposing the three-minute time limit for speakers.
Discussion continued, however, even after the Council meeting was adjourned. During the meeting of the successor agency to the former redevelopment agency, Matt Simmons, a member of Signal Hill Community First, stated that he agrees with the Council’s position.
Other Council highlights:
Zoom prospector program Long Beach city officials Victor Grgas and Daniel Payan gave a presentation on the “Zoom Prospector” Economic-Development program, an online database developed through the Gateway Cities Council of Governments (COG). The program was developed to enable prospective manufacturers, developers, real-estate agents and others to identify available locations in the region where new or expanding businesses could potentially locate. In addition to incorporating 98 percent of all commercial and industrial property listings, the program provides various layers of geographic and demographic information as well as “dynamic mapping” to assist business owners free of charge. To access the site, visit gatewaycogsiteprospector.org .
Conditional-use permit properties The Council received and filed a report on the annual inspection of properties with conditional-use permits (CUPs). The report included a review of 49 properties with CUPs, including the Majestic Golf Course, which, according to city officials, has received concerns from residents of golf balls overshooting the fence. Improvements to the site to rectify the situation are expected by April.
Review of institutional permits The Council adopted a resolution, conditionally approving annual institutional permits for the Courtyard Care Center and the Las Brisas Child Care Center. Both establishments submitted applications to obtain permits for calendar year 2014.
The next Signal Hill Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 4 at 7pm in the Council Chamber.