DOWNEY — The City Council has given preliminary approval for a 3% utility tax to raise money for 27 new police officers, a 23% increase in the size of the city's force.
Council members Tuesday unanimously approved the tax, which must win final approval at a special meeting scheduled for Oct. 30. Councilwoman Barbara Hayden did not attend the meeting but submitted a statement in support of the tax.
Under the ordinance approved Tuesday, 4 to 0, residents and businesses would pay a tax equal to 3% of their electricity, gas and telephone bills. That would amount to $30 to $60 a year for the average family, Assistant City Manager Lee Powell said.
City officials expect to raise about $2.1 million a year from the tax, which is enough to pay for the 27 officers, a secretary, two police aides and one clerk.
Downey Police Chief D. Clayton Mayes told the council that his department is understaffed and urged approval.
Downey has about 1.3 police officers per 1,000 residents, which leaves the city ranking 10th among 13 similar cities recently surveyed by Downey administrators, according to Powell. Inglewood ranked first, with two officers per 1,000 residents. Long Beach, which was not included in the survey, has 1.6 officers per 1,000 residents.
Increased crime in 1989 points to a need for more officers, Mayes said. Aggravated assaults increased nearly 80% from 1988 to 1989: from 153 to 275. Car thefts were up about 38%, from 875 to 1,211, and burglaries and robberies were up 4% and 3%, respectively, according to city crime reports.
"No one will make any friends passing a new tax," Mayor Roy L. Paul said. "I don't want to, but in my heart I know it's gotten to the point where we don't have alternatives."
The council moved surprisingly fast to bolster the city's police force. At a meeting just two weeks ago, the council had asked for an itemized report on long-term police needs.
One incident that contributed heavily to the council's quick action was an Oct. 9 armed robbery of a PACE store, during which two Downey officers were shot.
Just four officers were on duty, minimum staffing in the early morning hours of a weekday, Mayes said, and there were at least six robbers.
"Although all four officers responded to the situation, they were seriously outmanned by the gang attempting to rob the PACE store," Powell wrote in a report to the council.
Another factor contributing to the quick action is Proposition 136 on the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, the initiative would require that a majority of city voters approve such tax increases.
"That's why staff came roaring back with it this quickly--that and the roaring violence in the city," Councilwoman Diane P. Boggs said. "I have felt for some time that we're undergoing a change here in the city. We've been able to slide by with a department smaller than others have had."
The council action drew immediate criticism from about half a dozen taxpayers, who said the city should find funding alternatives. They suggested spending cuts in other areas to free money for the police.
"If you want to have this tax, you should call a special election and sell it to the voters," resident Joel H. Lubin said.
In addition, one opponent cautioned that the city could lose property tax revenue if the utility tax is enacted.
Downey had a 5% utility tax from 1970 until 1977, when the City Council suspended it. State lawmakers soon passed legislation that required Los Angeles County to give Downey more property tax revenue to make up for the loss. That amounted to $300,000 in 1978, Powell said.
Former Councilman Ken Miller said the county could take action to eliminate that special allotment. Miller said that he supports an increase in the police force but that the council should consider other ways of raising money.
"Passing the utility tax could well wipe that (revenue) out," he said.
Miller estimated that the special allotment amounts to $2 million a year.
Powell, the assistant city manager, said city officials do not know the amount of the allotment.
Community correspondent Suzan Schill contributed to this article.