West Hollywood voters will decide in April whether or not to approve a $7.6-million bond measure to build a library and fire station, but if opponents have their way, the election will also be a referendum on the city's long-awaited civic center.
Civic center opponents, led by City Councilman Steve Schulte, this week tried to revive their long-frustrated effort to stall the project.
At issue is a provision recommended last month by city staff--and quickly discarded by the City Council on Tuesday--that would allow landlords to pass to tenants a small portion of a property tax increase, should the bond issue be approved.
Opponents of the civic center, angered by plans to use scarce park space to build what some have derisively referred to as a "Taj Mahal" in West Hollywood Park, have argued that the city should dip into its $14-million reserve fund to pay for the fire station and library and then let voters decide whether the center is built.
The opponents view the bond measure as a backhanded attempt to squeeze more money for the civic center, since both the library and fire station were originally included in the center's design.
A campaign to place a civic center initiative on the ballot last year fell short after organizers failed to acquire enough signatures.
And although opponents have not given up the idea of their own ballot initiative, claiming to have collected 2,800 signatures thus far in a renewed effort, they have begun to focus on a different tactic now that the bond election has been set for April 11.
In a city where less than 15% of residents own their own homes, Schulte and others have sought to paint the election as a ruse to expand the civic center budget at the expense of property owners.
"I think (the bond election) raises an interesting issue about fairness and equity," said Schulte, the lone council member opposed to building the civic center in the park.
"What (the other council members) are saying by supporting the bond issue while opposing passing along some of the tax burden to tenants is that property owners are going to have to bear an unfair share of the burden for the library and fire station, and I don't think that is equitable," he said.
On Tuesday, the five-member council voted unanimously against the so-called pass-through provision. Schulte called the provision unnecessary, citing his opposition to the bond issue.
Some civic center supporters questioned why the issue, raised by Schulte, was discussed at all.
"There was never going to be any pass-through," said Councilman John Heilman, an ardent supporter of placing the civic center in the park. "The whole discussion (of pass-throughs) detracts from the real issue, and that is that we need a new fire station, and we need it desperately."
If approved, the bond issue would increase property taxes by up to $33.47 per $100,000 of assessed valuation over the next 20 years to pay for a fire station at a site that has yet to be determined. The size of the county branch library that serves West Hollywood would be quadrupled.
Although Los Angeles County provides library and fire services to West Hollywood, officials have said that county funds are not available to replace either facility.
The proposed 21,000-square-foot library would include up to 6,000 square feet to house the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, an extensive private collection of gay and lesbian research materials whose owners have expressed a desire to see placed permanently in West Hollywood.
A two-engine fire station would replace an existing single-engine station located on a narrow residential street. Officials said the existing building does not meet earthquake standards.
Although there is general agreement that both facilities are needed, debate over the center has clouded the issue.
In a document supporting the bond issue prepared for publication in the official voters' guide, supporters said the bonds would be "paid out of the (city's) general fund."
The statement was deleted after City Clerk Mary Tyson challenged its accuracy, noting that, if approved, the bonds would be paid for by property taxes "that would be placed in the general fund." The document was signed by Heilman, Mayor Helen Albert and three others.
Tyson also forced Schulte and other opponents to alter the wording of the opposition statement in the voters' guide because she said it implied that the tenant "pass-through" was a certainty.
It is not the first time the controversy over the civic center has sparked a war of words.
Schulte was angered last October by what he said was a deceptive and misleading city-sponsored brochure promoting the project, 2,000 copies of which were distributed at the West Hollywood Street Festival.
The brochure depicted a sprawling collection of low buildings, including a performing arts auditorium, library, City Hall and recreational building, highlighted by two observation towers and a portico along San Vicente Boulevard.