LONG BEACH — Proposition 136, the state ballot initiative that would prevent cities from raising taxes, could imperil the city's plan to bring in sheriff's deputies over the next three years to help protect a town in which crime is soaring and police performance is at a record low, Long Beach officials say.
On the brink of a law enforcement crisis, the city has hired 46 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies to begin patrolling the northern parts of town next month because the Long Beach Police Department is critically understaffed, backlogged with cases and barely able to keep up with calls for help.
The $3.8 million needed to pay for one year of sheriff's assistance was raised by increasing from 5% to 7% the utility tax that residents pay for water, gas and telephone service, officials said.
It is precisely that kind of tax increase that Prop. 136 would prohibit. Should the initiative pass, all future tax hikes would need to be approved by two-thirds of Long Beach voters--the same voters who rejected a special tax in November that would have bought 75 more Long Beach police officers.
"Had this initiative been in effect when the city considered its budget this year," Assistant City Manager John Shirey said, "we would not have been able to raise sufficient revenues to meet the public safety needs of this city. We would have had to cut elsewhere to find $3.8 million, and there would have been a lot more blood on the floor."
The measure's effect on California cities would be sweeping. But in Long Beach, city officials said, the impact could go straight to the heart of a service considered vital to any community: police protection.
Some city officials are worried. Long Beach police recently ranked lowest among 10 major cities in California for solving serious and violent crimes. At the same time, crime is increasing more rapidly in Long Beach than virtually anywhere in the state, Department of Justice figures show.
All the while, Long Beach is in a financial crisis. The city continues to dip into its meager budget surplus to pay for such fundamental services as police, and there is no new money on the horizon. A healthy budget surplus for a city such as Long Beach would approach $9 million, city officials have said; the surplus is now about $750,000.
Last year, more than 50% of the voters approved of a special tax to pay for 75 more police officers, but the ordinance failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to become law--the same high standard that Proposition 136 would impose.
Councilman Ray Grabinski said: "Raising the utility tax is one of the few things we've been able to do at the local level to maintain public service. This initiative is just another nail in the coffin of local government."
Proposition 136, which appears on the Nov. 6 ballot, is sponsored by anti-tax groups and backed by $2 million from the liquor industry. Its prime sponsor, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn., contends that the liquor tax has never been the driving force behind the measure, which was designed to stop local officials from raising any tax without voter approval.
Its opponents--including the League of Women voters, California League of Cities, Common Cause of California, California Parent-Teacher Assn. and California Tax Reform Assn.--call it a "rum-soaked fraud" perpetrated by the alcohol industry to protect itself and other special interests from tax increases.
The inability to raise local taxes in the future means that Long Beach will have to forgo the added sheriff's protection next year or cut close to $4 million somewhere else. Already, the budget is so lean that most departments were asked to cut costs 2% across the board this year, officials said.
"The council would have no choice but to look at parks and recreation and library services, because that's about all that's left," said Shirey, the assistant city manager.
Forty-six Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies are scheduled to begin patrolling Long Beach's 5th and 9th City Council districts Nov. 1, freeing 43 local officers to patrol the rest of the city. The agreement could run as long as three years and eight months, giving the Long Beach Police Department time to increase staff levels and improve its performance.