BALDWIN PARK — An irate resident who wants Baldwin Park's 5% utility tax rescinded has filed a petition with more than enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, despite the city attorney's opinion that the petition may be invalid.
Herschel Keyser has also filed a petition to recall one of the five councilmen who approved the tax, declaring "we'll go after all the others if they don't get rid of that damn tax."
Leading the anti-tax drive almost single-handedly, Keyser submitted 3,944 signatures with the petition seeking repeal of the utility tax, almost twice the required 15% of Baldwin Park's 14,723 registered voters. The petition to recall Richard Gibson has 2,945 signatures, just over the required 2,745, or 20% of the voters. The signatures must still be verified.
Keyser, a 54-year-old maintenance worker at Mt. San Antonio College, said he filed both petitions at the same time so they could be placed on the same ballot. If both qualify for the ballot, the election could be held July 8 or 15, said City Clerk Linda Gair.
But City Atty. Robert Flandrick said the tax, which was unanimously approved last fall, can only be rescinded by the City Council that levied it. "It is just not subject to the referendum process, or to an initiative," he said. "You just can't do that with tax measures. The council is the only body that can do that."
Flandrick's legal opinion notwithstanding, and despite the fact that 18 other cities in Los Angeles County have levied utility taxes, Keyser says he will continue to wage his battles, even if it means taking city officials to court.
If the council abides by the city attorney's opinion and denies an election, Keyser said, "we'll have to start a recall on all of them right away and throw them out of office."
Keyser said he only targeted Gibson because three other councilmen were exempt from the recall process since their terms are about to end and they face reelection this year. And since no one opposed Mayor Jack White, Bobbie W. Izell and Robert H. McNeill, the three will automatically retain their seats and Baldwin Park will have no election on April 8 when other cities hold municipal elections.
Out of State
The fifth councilman, Leo King, was out of the state and could not be served recall papers at the time Gibson was served, Keyser said. Keyser also said that he was afraid he would be unable to get the necessary signatures on two recall petitions and the repeal effort. "We were afraid we might fail on all three."
Gibson, who has served on the council less than two years, said that until signatures on his recall petition are verified, "it's nothing but an empty threat. Until then, there's nothing I can do."
Keyser has enlisted the support of tax crusader Howard Jarvis, who claims that utility taxes violate Proposition 13, which he authored in 1978.
"I get these (taxpayer complaints) all the time," said Jarvis, head of California Tax Reduction Movement. "My advice to all of them is that the utility tax is a violation of Proposition 13. One hundred and eight cities (in California) have raised taxes, and we will probably file a class-action suit, or help them file it. As for Baldwin Park--the city attorney is a public employee, and we'll see where he has the authority to run the city."
80 Cities Have Tax
Peter Detwiler, a consultant to the state Senate Local Government Committee, said that a recent decision from the California Supreme Court held that a utility users tax is not a special tax and is exempt from a public vote. About 80 California cities have utility users taxes, Detwiler said. Other rulings have held that a special tax requires approval by two-thirds of the voters in an election, he said.
The Baldwin Park council unanimously approved the 5% utility tax last August to offset an expected loss of about $650,000 in federal revenue-sharing funds this year, and to raise money to hire seven additional police officers. The tax is applied to water, gas, electricity and telephone bills. It is collected by the utilities and turned over to the cities. Exemptions are available to senior citizens, the disabled and low-income residents.
City Manager Ralph Webb said the tax will net the city about $1.2 million annually and will cost the average family about $66 a year.
Mayor Jack White said revenue from the utility tax is needed primarily to provide the police with $1 million to replace lost federal revenue-sharing funds, hire the additional officers and cover the cost of salary increases.
Yearly Review Promised
The council hopes to eliminate the tax as soon as possible, he said, and will review it every year.
Besides objecting to the tax itself, Keyser said that the money, which goes into the city's general account, is not designated for special purposes.
"They can use it for any damn thing they want and they can add to it, and the voters won't have anything to say about it," he said.
Keyser claims it is "morally wrong" for utilities to act as taxing agencies. He said that as a single homeowner in Baldwin Park, the utility tax will probably cost him an additional $100 in the summer when he uses air conditioning, a pool heater and water for his yard.
Keyser said he "and maybe about five other people," including members of his family, collected signatures on weekends in shopping centers.
Gair said that verifying the signatures through the registrar-recorder's office will cost Baldwin Park $1.29 a signature. That, coupled with the cost of having a special election, is expected to cost the city about $15,000.
"I'm sorry about that," Keyser said. "I hate to see it cost. But that council sits up there and spends money, and it's our money, and the voters should come first."