SOUTH PASADENA — Following voters' decisive defeat of a proposed 4% utility tax, city officials are glumly assessing their options in the face of a projected budget shortfall of at least $90,000.
Among the hard choices they face, said City Manager John Bernardi, is the possible layoff of city workers. "There's not a lot of fat anyplace," he said at a somber post-election gathering late Tuesday. "That's what makes it so hard. We're already operating with one-person departments."
Almost one-third of the city's 12,882 registered voters went to the polls, a surprisingly high turnout for an off-year election. On Proposition W, which called for a three-year utility tax, 2,262 residents, or 54.5%, voted no and 1,888, or 45.5%, voted yes. Two school board members were also elected in Tuesday's vote.
"It was like fighting all the king's horses and all the king's men," said a triumphant Thomas Biesek, a member of the South Pasadena Taxpayers' Assn., which led the opposition to the tax. "There were four city councilmen against us, the board of the Chamber of Commerce, the local League of Women Voters, the police and firemen's associations."
The tax issue had been an especially divisive one in a city known for knock-down political battles. Each side lined up support from civic associations and pressure groups. Councilman Robert Wagner, who is now traveling abroad, withdrew his support for the measure in August after having been one of its early backers.
Most of the civic establishments in the city lined up behind the tax, but Biesek's group countered with backing from the California Tax Reduction Movement, an organization founded by the late Howard Jarvis, champion of Proposition 13.
Mayor James Hodge said the council will try again in April to get a tax approved. "It would be irresponsible not to try again," he said.
The city had already adopted a budget that exceeds expected revenues, assuming that the tax would be passed. Officials had hoped that the measure would provide funds for computerizing city operations, pruning street trees and providing raises for city employees.
The city also is obligated to staff a brand-new city jail, which is scheduled to begin operating by the end of the year. That could cost more than $115,000 a year, including salaries for jailers. The money has not been included in the current budget, said Bernardi.
The opposition group has already committed itself to support a more limited tax in the spring election. "We want to see a tax with a cap on top of it," said Robert Cook, another leader of the South Pasadena Taxpayers' Assn. "We're proposing a two-year tax with a $1.2-million cap, which can be renewed every time there's a council election."
Cook contended that voters were right to be suspicious of Proposition W. "We won because we had a better mousetrap," he said. "The city's inability to put a dollar limit on the tax made it look like a blank check."
But proponents said the tax was defeated because it had been misrepresented by the opposition and because of an ingrown negativity about city government on the part of many voters, particularly the elderly. "There's a great irony that people pay a premium to live in a city that they perceive as a quality place," said Robert Weaver, chairman of South Pasadenans For Yes on W. "Yet there seems almost a reflexive unwillingness to pay for that quality."