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Compton Council Rejects Tax Increase, Tough Gun Law

August 20, 1987|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

COMPTON — Mayor Walter R. Tucker switched his vote Tuesday and the City Council narrowly defeated a proposed 40% increase in utility-user taxes only a week after tentatively approving it.

"I just can't see how this (increase) is going to solve the problem," Tucker said, shortly before voting with council members Maxcy D. Filer and Jane D. Robbins to defeat the plan on a 3-2 vote.

Last week, Tucker had sided with Councilmen Floyd A. James and Robert L. Adams Sr. in another 3-2 vote that kept the tax proposal alive.

When it was over, administrators reacted to the defeat with a blunt warning that the city may be only months away from a severe financial crisis unless revenue is found to counter the loss of federal revenue sharing.

For the mayor and the council as a whole, Tuesday's action came at the end of an evening of turnabouts that saw them also abruptly reverse field on a handgun control ordinance. It had unanimously passed on a previous reading last week, gaining the city an avalanche of unexpected national publicity. The ordinance would have banned the private possession of concealable firearms in this city where the crime rate is twice the state average and a third higher than Los Angeles County's.

Facing a nearly standing-room-only crowd, four television news cameras and a lobbyist from the National Rifle Assn. of America, Tucker, Robbins and James announced that they had decided to reject the handgun ordinance rather than strip law-abiding citizens of a tool for their self-defense. In addition, city lawyers had said that only the Legislature has the power to impose such regulation.

The handgun ordinance also died by 3-2 votes, with Filer and Adams voting in favor of the ban.

But the proposed tax increase proved to be the more pressing issue as city financial experts told the council that major spending cuts will have to be ordered unless some form of revenue increase is approved.

While the city can expect to receive a few million dollars in federal grant money soon, municipal coffers now contain only $1.7 million, from which $800,000 will be needed to meet the next bi-weekly payroll.

Although the city is in no immediate danger of not being able to meet the payroll, City Treasurer Wesley Sanders Jr. predicted that eventually "we're probably going to have to lay off some people if we don't get some funds."

Administrators hoped to raise an extra $1.3 million through the utility tax increase to compensate for the loss of revenue sharing, which had brought $2.5 million to the city annually. Congress ended the program last year.

Tucker said he considered the utility tax increase to be a stopgap measure at best, adding that the city wouldn't actually receive the revenue until the end of the year when utility companies turn over the assessments they have collected.

The city now requires residents and businesses to pay a 5% tax based on the cost of gas, electricity, telephone and water used each month. The proposed increase would have pushed the assessment to 7%, meaning that the average residential customer would have paid $2.19 more, while commercial customers would have paid from $7 to $9 more per utility. For that reason, business leaders were particularly opposed.

But James and Adams continued to argue for the increase as financial experts detailed the city's suffering position.

When Adams asked if the city was spending at a deficit, Controller Timothy Brown replied, "We're going in that direction."

Revenue from the utility tax was to be generally used to make improvements in Police and Fire department services. City Manager James C. Goins told the council that "if this tax does not pass, it would be my recommendation that we not purchase (four new police) motorcycles and that we not add (six police academy) candidates" as Police Department officials have requested.

When it became clear that Tucker was about to change his vote and oppose the tax, James urged him to reconsider.

"I'm for working this out any way we can get this passed," James said. "It's not a play thing, it's not a joke, it's real."

Tucker said he continued to believe that much of the city's money shortage could be solved by abolishing its police force in favor of contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. While Compton pays about $13 million to operate the Police Department, the neighboring city of Carson pays only $6 million for an equivalent cadre of sheriff's deputies, he said.

Adams noted that such a change would require that the city charter be amended by voter referendum, which would need months of preparation.

"I think we may be bankrupt," Adams told Tucker, "before you can get that together."

James added that he was "deeply concerned that we stay solvent. . . . If this city goes bankrupt we will be the laughing stock of the state of California."

Tucker said he wasn't worried about being a laughing stock to anyone but Compton voters. "A lot of cities bigger than we are have had financial problems," he said.

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