HUNTINGTON PARK — The city's voters on Tuesday will decide the fate of a 7% utility tax that would raise an estimated $2.74 million a year in additional revenue for this financially strapped city.
The city's five councilmen are strong proponents of the measure. They say the tax is essential if the city is to hire more police officers to keep pace with a growing population and gain stable financial footing.
"The future of the city will be determined on the 12th of September," said Councilman Jim Roberts, who heads a political action committee in support of the measure. "If we don't get this passed, we're going to go back to some major cuts."
But opponents contend that the council has made some poor financial decisions, which include tying up million of dollars in the city's redevelopment program. That money could have been used for police salaries, among other things, opponents argue. They also say residents of Huntington Park, which was recently rated one of the poorest communities in the nation, should not have to pay for those decisions.
"It is not a police issue. . . . It's a money issue," said Louis Hernandez, chairman of a group called Huntington Park Citizens for Responsible Government. "The City Council stresses (the need for more police) to cover up their mistakes in redevelopment."
Roberts' Committee for Utility Users Tax is sending out several flyers and campaigning door-to-door in support of the measure, the councilman said. The Huntington Park Police Officers Assn. has been campaigning for the utility tax. Signs urging "Yes" votes on the measure are in the windows of some businesses near City Hall.
The Committee for Utility Users Tax raised $4,548 and spent $2,385 as of Aug. 27, according to campaign disclosure statements.
Roberts donated $100 to the effort. Curtis Fresch, listed as president of Poker Club Management, which controls the Huntington Park Casino, donated $500, as did his brother, Eric Fresch, agent for H. P. Disposal, a garbage company that holds the city's commercial trash collection franchise.
The joint reelection committee for councilmen Thomas E. Jackson and Jack Parks donated $479.99, and the reelection committee for City Clerk Marilyn Boyette and City Treasurer Eileen F. Gerardi provided $995.12, according to the statements. The Huntington Park Police Officers Assn. donated $1,472.
Hernandez's group, Huntington Park Citizens for Responsible Government, is working to defeat the measure by telephoning voters, going door-to-door and sending out a mailer, he said.
The group raised $800 as of last week to oppose the ballot measure, Hernandez said. The contributions include $100 from Hernandez and $200 from Morrison Escrow Co., which is owned by the wife of former Huntington Park Police Chief Geano Contessotto, Hernandez said. The committee is not required to file a campaign disclosure statement unless it raises or spends $1,000, Boyette said.
City officials thought their financial problems were solved and that they would be able to hire more police last May 15, when the council approved a 7% tax on electricity, gas, water and telephone usage. The tax was to have taken effect when the fiscal year started on July 1.
But a recent state Supreme Court decision undercut the council's authority to impose the tax without voter approval. The council decided against collecting the tax and scheduled Tuesday's special election.
If approved by voters, the tax will raise about $2.74 million for the city's anemic general fund, which pays for most city services, including police protection.
City officials say they want to use about $1 million of the tax money to hire 22 new Police Department employees, including two sergeants and 13 officers.
The rest of the money would probably go toward employee raises and to restore some positions that have been cut to reduce city spending over the past two years, Chief Administrative Officer Donald L. Jeffers said.
Earlier this summer, the council approved an austerity budget that had more than $150,000 in cuts from last year's spending plan. Those cuts included the elimination of three maintenance and painting positions that were vacant or filled with temporary employees, Jeffers said.
No raises were budgeted for city employees. The city's three employee associations have agreed that their members will continue working at current pay levels, pending the outcome of the election. Huntington Park employees received a 4.2% raise last year, which costs the city about $300,000 annually.
The budget projects spending of about $10.2 million from the general fund, leaving a scant reserve of $11,400 for the year. The city finished the last year with a $475,000 general fund reserve.
City officials say Huntington Park's financial problems are the result of various factors. Federal and state subsidies have been reduced or eliminated, depriving the city of more than $1 million annually for the past two years.