SOUTH PASADENA — In a spirit of wary amicability, the City Council has agreed to place a scaled-down version of the 4% utility tax, which was rebuffed by the voters last month, on the April ballot.
"If my colleague Robert Wagner is happy with it, that's all I need to know," said Councilman Lee Prentiss, nodding across the dais at Wagner during the council meeting on Wednesday.
The earlier version of the tax, a three-year measure with no cap on the amount of revenue it could have raised, had split the council and the city's civic groups between proponents of expanded city services and avowed fiscal conservatives. Wagner had been an adversary of the measure, while Prentiss was part of a four-man majority on the council that supported it.
Victory and Vindication
Wagner claimed victory and vindication in the council's endorsement of a revised tax measure, which places a $1.2-million cap on the amount of revenue that the tax can collect and a two-year limit on its existence.
"It's a positive victory that the council has acquiesced to our original requests," said Wagner, who had been censured by his colleagues in September for allegedly exhibiting "conduct unbecoming a councilman" in opposing Proposition W, last month's tax measure.
Wagner angered other council members last August when he dropped his initial support for Proposition W and became an aggressive opponent of the measure. The council censured Wagner after he elicited a signed endorsement from former Councilman Robert Veir for sample ballot arguments opposing the tax.
Veir, who is recovering from brain surgery, subsequently renounced those arguments, saying that he had not realized they would be published on the sample ballot.
Veir's wife, Barbara, said her partially paralyzed husband had thought he was signing "a sort of petition." She described Wagner's effort to enlist Veir's support as "a con."
Seeking 'Blank Check'
Wagner and the South Pasadena Taxpayers Assn., which led the opposition to Proposition W, had claimed that the city was asking for a "blank check" in its proposal for a three-year tax.
At Wednesday's meeting, it was clear that Wagner's colleagues were determined to get his support for the new measure at all costs. First, they allowed him to dictate changes in the language of a draft of a ballot measure, including a clear-cut statement that the tax would die once its revenues totaled $1.2 million.
"When the $1.2-million level is reached, the tax itself is canceled, period," said Wagner, as City Atty. Charles Vose took notes to prepare revisions in the language of the draft.
Then, Wagner's colleagues invited the dissident councilman to write the argument in favor of the tax for the sample ballot, which will be distributed to the city's almost 13,000 voters.
"I respectfully decline, because we have a mayor who leads the city," said Wagner testily. ". . .The mayor speaks for the council. I was censured by the council."
At the other councilmen's insistence, however, Wagner agreed to join Mayor James Hodge in preparing the pro-tax arguments.
"If you'd like to sit down with me, I'll be happy to concur with a joint signature," Wagner told Hodge.
Wagner's reluctance elicited some nervous reactions from the four other council members.
"I thought we were more than generous, and I was looking for some leadership from Bob Wagner," Prentiss said during a recess. "This scares me a little. He said he'd sign the last ballot argument, then he pulled his name on the last day."
Wagner said after the meeting that he would urge voters to support the new measure. "Conservatively, it will save the taxpayers about $1.5 million in tax money that the city would have collected if the previous measure had passed," he said.
The new measure, if approved, will not produce revenue for the current fiscal year, in which budgetary difficulties have already forced a municipal hiring freeze and cuts in tree-pruning and street-sweeping programs. After the defeat of Proposition W, city officials projected a $172,000 budget shortage for this year.
However, the new tax would help to bridge projected budget shortfalls for the next two years.
City Manager John Bernardi said that South Pasadena will have to prepare two budgets for next year, "one assuming the tax passes, one assuming it fails." The austerity budget will include drastic cutbacks in service, he said.
"If this (the tax measure) doesn't work," Bernardi said, "we're going to be faced with some massive cuts in July."