BELLFLOWER — As city leaders see it, thousands of dollars that could be put to good civic use lie untapped in the cash registers of the 5,000 or so businesses that operate here.
City Council members said they could pump an additional $400,000 into the city's coffers and improve municipal services if Bellflower voters in November approve an increase in the annual business license fee. Proposition E would allow the council to raise the fee to $100 from $25, a rate that has not changed since 1973. It also would give the council the power to increase the fee each year to keep up with the rate of inflation.
Persuading voters to back the measure, however, may be difficult. Twice in the last three years, residents in the city of 61,000 have voted down proposed fee increases. And again this year, opponents of a fee hike are decrying the increase as unfair and unnecessary.
Bellflower is one of the few cities in southeastern Los Angeles County where the business license fee is not set by the council, and must go before the voters.
For city officials, the arguments in favor of the fee increase are simple. "We need the money," said Mayor Pro-Tem John Ansdell, who owns an upholstery and drapery shop in town. "We lost a lot of money to cuts in Sacramento, and I don't think $100 a year is going to hurt anybody," Ansdell said. "That's money that could be well spent."
But foes of the increase said they believe that a $100-a-year license fee would hurt small business people and discourage them from locating in Bellflower. They also said that if a fee increase were to be approved, businesses would pass the cost on to consumers.
"I do not see why the individual in the city has to be gouged," Bellflower resident Ruth Gilson said.
Gilson said she has heard from several small business owners who said they would be hurt by the increase. She believes it would not be necessary if city leaders had better managed the city's money.
City officials counter that Proposition E, which is supported by the Chamber of Commerce, has less to do with inefficient management than the rising cost of doing business.
"It (the license fee) is ridiculously low," Mayor Randy Bomgaars said. "It's been the same for the past 17 years. There isn't anything I can think of that hasn't increased in price due to inflation in that time."
In a statement filed with the city in support of the fee increase, Bomgaars and Councilman Robert Stone said that while the business license fee has remained static, the cost of a patrol unit supplied by the Lakewood sheriff's station has risen by 359% since 1973.
"How can we continue to pay 1973 dollars for 1990 services?" Bomgaars and Stone ask in the statement. "City programs, services and facilities must be maintained and improved."
Finance director Linda Manning said that in addition to rising costs, the city lost $180,000 in projected revenue in state budget cuts.
Manning said the city has consolidated jobs and delayed programs such as street maintenance in order to save money. Today, the $130,000 generated by the business license fee barely covers the cost of regulating businesses, Manning said.
"We've been lucky because our sales tax (which contributes one-third of the city's revenue) continues to rise," Manning said. "But some sources of revenue, like the business license fee, have just been stuck and that's the part that hurts us."
For the fiscal year that began July 1, the city's budget is $15.8 million.
City officials said the additional funds generated by Proposition E would be used to finance such programs as Substance Abuse Narcotics Education--an anti-drug program taught in the schools--and a $190,000 citywide beautification program that has been long-delayed. Deputy City Administrator Mike Egan said that the beautification program would include street resurfacing and low-interest rehabilitation loans to residents and businesses.
Bomgaars and his fellow council members, who all support Proposition E, said the fee increase would mean that businesses in the area would pay just over a quarter a day instead of the dime a day they pay now. At about 25 cents a day, city leaders said a $100 fee is not going to discourage businesses from locating in Bellflower.
"I don't think we would be overburdening anybody," Ansdell said.
John Starns has owned and operated Bellflower Lock and Safe for the last 10 years, and owns similar stores in Cerritos and holds a license to operate a store in Artesia. In Cerritos, he pays $96 a year for a business license, and in Artesia the cost is $40 a year. Starns said he believes that if Bellflower charges $100 a year, it would not deter business owners from setting up shop.