ALHAMBRA — Two days after receiving a bleak report outlining what cuts would be necessary if the city's utilities tax were repealed, the City Council has agreed to let voters decide the matter in November.
A citizens group called All We Can Afford gathered more than 4,000 signatures on petitions to force a vote on the measure. At its meeting Wednesday the council could have repealed the tax, but instead put the measure on the November ballot.
Some council members who have voiced reluctance to repeal the tax said that they are in a political bind and will find it difficult to campaign against the measure while running for reelection.
Caught in the Middle
"The majority of the council doesn't want to cut taxes, and then we have this group that wants to completely cut taxes, and I'm caught in the middle," said Councilman Michael A. Blanco.
Earlier this year, Blanco, who is seeking reelection, proposed a compromise that would have eliminated the residential utilities tax while phasing out the commercial utilities tax over several years. The proposal died when Blanco's proposal failed to receive a second.
According to a report City Manager Kevin Murphy submitted to the council, loss of the 3-year-old utilities tax could result in 55 of Alhambra's 356 city employees losing their jobs, a fire station being closed and the budgets of all city departments being cut an average of 17.2%.
"It's a no-win situation," said Mayor Michael J. Messina, who will not seek reelection, but whose wife, Barbara, is a mayoral candidate. "There's no way that a councilman can take a stand.
'Why Do It?'
"If I come out in favor of it, someone will be mad. If I come out against it, someone will be mad. Why do it?" Messina said.
Murphy said that he does not believe the debate will be one-sided, however.
He looks to city employee associations and "private citizens taking the right stand on this measure rather than the one that is most expedient politically."
Presidents of employee associations were informed of the cuts that Murphy said will be necessary if the tax is repealed.
"It paints a gloomy picture of what the city is going to have to do," said Thomas Phelps, president of the Alhambra Firefighters Assn. Local 1578.
Mutual Agreement Sought
Phelps said that he will meet with members of other associations in hopes of getting a mutual agreement to fight the repeal.
Dennis Hamby, president of the Alhambra Police Assn., said that his group will work to educate the public about the tax cut's probable effects, such as a reduction in public safety.
But Ted Manghis, vice chairman of All We Can Afford, said his group is "in a good position. This is an election year. They (the council members) want to keep a low profile."
"All we need to do is alert the people as to the tactics that Kevin Murphy's group will be using," he said.
Manghis and other repeal supporters accused Murphy of using scare tactics by painting a bleak view of the tax cut's effect.
"Nobody believed it in 1978 (when Proposition 13 was on the ballot), and nobody's going to believe it in 1986," said Mark Lockman, chairman of the citizens group. "This is just monumental scare tactics."
Murphy denied the charge. "The report was written as, 'If this happens, what would we do?' And this is what we'd do."
Council members in June asked Murphy to prepare a report outlining the impact of loss of the tax, which generates $2.7 million a year, or about 13% of the city's $21 million general expenditures.
The council voted 4 to 1 in 1983 to impose the 5% tax on commercial and residential telephone, water, gas, electric and cable-television bills.
City officials said that when Proposition 13 was approved, they laid off 80 people and were able to cover other cuts with reserve funds.
Now, however, there are insufficent reserves to cover loss of the utilities-tax revenue, officials said.
If the tax is repealed, Murphy said the following cuts would be necessary:
- The Police Department would lose one captain, a sergeant, three officers, a clerk and three civilian employees for a saving of $350,243. Service and supply reductions, including having the school system pay for school crossing guards, would save $150,000.
- The Fire Department would close Station 3, at 2200 W. Main St., with nine firefighters losing their jobs. These cuts would save $507,408. Murphy also suggested that the city consider contracting with Los Angeles County for fire protection and emergency medical services.
- The Human Services Department would eliminate nighttime park security, close the Story Park pool and reduce the operation of the Alhambra Park pool to six months from 12 months. The cuts would save $527,000.
- The library would close its branch at 2037 S. Fremont Ave. and reduce the hours for the Alhambra Public Library from six to five days a week. These and other cuts would save $250,800.
- The Housing/Community Development Department would lose five of its 15 full-time positions. These and other cuts would save $123,627.
- Office hours at City Hall would be reduced from 40 to 25 a week, and the offices of the city clerk and city attorney would be combined. Opponents of the utilities tax said the impetus for the repeal effort was a recent increase in an assessment for sidewalk and street light improvements.
City officials say that the 5% increase in that assessment will amount to a yearly average increase of $2.51 per property.
"The cost of a Big Mac, french fries and a Coke, that's what we're talking about," Murphy said.