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S. Pasadena Places 4% Utility Tax on Ballot

August 09, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH PASADENA — Confronted with the increasingly challenging task of balancing the city budget, the City Council has voted to place a proposal for a 4% utility tax on the November ballot.

The city needs at least $90,000 to make up for this year's shortfall and to cover additional costs of maintaining basic services, city officials say.

"We have a 25-year-old Parks Department truck on which the rust is the only thing holding it together," said City Manager John Bernardi. "We have hose nozzles on our fire engine that are older than our firemen."

In a rare show of unanimity, the five council members have agreed that the city will need between $600,000 and $900,000 next year to replace equipment, increase some salaries and perform such long-deferred services as pruning trees. Additional revenue may be required in subsequent years for other capital expenses, they say. The city's budget for the current fiscal year is $11 million.

"It's time to pay the piper," said Mayor James Hodge, who contends that the budget has been balanced in recent years at the expense of wiping out contingency funds for future capital expenditures. "You can only take from your life savings for so long without going broke."

The ballot measure, which must be approved by a majority of voters, would authorize the city to collect the tax for three years. According to Councilman Robert Wagner, the tax would raise about $900,000 in its first year, with homeowners paying an average of less than $100.

He said the three major utilities--Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Bell and Southern California Gas Co.--bill South Pasadena clients for an annual total of about $23 million. A 4% tax would raise $920,000.

That amount could be reduced by some exemptions. Low- and moderate-income senior citizens and disabled veterans would not be required to pay the tax.

But some residents are already expressing skepticism about the plan, particularly the ballot measure's three-year authorization.

"Give politicians that kind of money and they absolutely won't be able to live without it," said former council member Helen Simmons, who heads a grass-roots group seeking to restrict commercial development in the city.

'Like Carson's Wives'

"It's like Johnny Carson's wives. They're married to him for a few years, and then they can't live without the $80,000 a month for clothes," Simmons said. "I'm definitely against" the three-year life of the authorization.

Wagner said he is committed to ending the taxing authority once sufficient funds have been raised to pay for such immediate necessities as new trucks, computers, police radios and a tree-pruning program.

"We do not need it for three years," Wagner said. "I don't believe the city should have surpluses. We should operate on a pay-as-you-go basis."

But other city officials contend that South Pasadena may be confronted with built-in shortfalls in coming years. While the cost of services is increasing, said Bernardi, the city's revenue base is shrinking.

Revenues from property taxes have been virtually frozen by recent restrictions on construction of new residential units, he said. Under pressure from homeowners who were concerned about new condominium developments in South Pasadena, the council last year imposed a ceiling of 60 new housing units a year.

Proposition 13 stunned the city 10 years ago, forcing it to lay off 47 employees because of budget cuts, Bernardi said. Since then, the municipal work force has been frozen at about 120. "That's left us with a lot of one-person and two-person departments," he said. "Our Planning Department, for example, is just one planner and a shared secretary."

Sales tax revenue is also shrinking. The city recently lost its top retailing operation when Ted Colliau, owner of a Chevrolet dealership on Fair Oaks Avenue, announced plans to relocate to another city.

Simmons' group, South Pasadena Tomorrow, is circulating a petition for an initiative measure imposing strict controls on new commercial development in the city. If the measure passes, it would cut sales tax revenues even further, Bernardi said.

Hodge described the utility tax as a necessity to preserve the quality of life in the city. "We'd like to maintain a certain level of service," he said. "Without it, even library hours might have to be cut drastically."

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