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Utility Tax Imposed to Keep Sheriff's Helicopter Patrol Flying

July 07, 1991|MICHELE FUETSCH and SUZAN SCHILL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 1% utility tax that will generate enough revenue to keep Sky Knight, the sheriff's helicopter patrol, flying over Paramount was adopted last week by the City Council.

Last month, City Manager William A. Holt recommended that in the face of dropping sales tax revenue and increasing crime rates the council pull out of the Sky Knight program and hire an additional ground patrol.

Instead, the City Council chose to levy the new utility tax and increase the business license tax by 5% to prevent a number of budget cuts. The new taxes will keep the helicopter flying and also pay for the additional ground patrol. The new sheriff's patrol car is expected to begin its rounds within two weeks, said Patrick West, deputy city manager.

The utility tax vote came at the same time that the council was adopting its $30-million budget for the 1991-92 fiscal year, which began July 1.

The utility tax is expected to generate $405,000 during the coming year, and will be levied on electricity, gas and telephone use. Cable television and water are exempted from the tax, which is expected to take effect Sept. 1, West said. Final passage of the new tax ordinance will take place at the Aug. 6 council meeting, he said.

Sky Knight is operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, but the cost is borne by a consortium of six Southeast cities--Paramount, Lakewood, Artesia, Bellflower, Cerritos and Hawaiian Gardens.

Paramount's possible pullout had been greeted with dismay by officials in the other cities because they would have had to pick up more of the cost or settle for reduced hours of service. It will cost $855,500 to keep the helicopter in the air this year. Paramount's share is $201,000 a year.

In Lakewood, which started Sky Knight and owns the helicopter, news that Paramount had solved its financial dilemma was greeted with delight.

"Sky Knight has served six cities, including Paramount, for 25 years," Lakewood City Manager Howard Chambers said. "The decision by the Paramount City Council will mean that Sky Knight will serve six cities for the foreseeable future."

Lakewood recently threw a 25th birthday celebration for Sky Knight, which officials there say was the first law enforcement patrol of its kind in the nation.

Paramount Mayor Gerald A. Mulrooney said last week that law enforcement is such a big concern for residents of his city that he did not believe they would object to paying a utility tax. There have been 14 murders in Paramount so far this year, Mulrooney said, compared to about 10 by the same time in previous years.

"We all felt we needed to add to law enforcement instead of taking away from it," he said.

Councilwoman Esther Corona Caldwell cast the only vote against the tax, complaining that it did not provide discounts for people on fixed incomes. Caldwell also pointed out that the new city tax might come on the heels of a state utility tax. State officials are considering a utility tax as a way of helping to close their $14-billion budget gap.

When Caldwell said she was voting against the utility tax and that she believed the council should make budget cuts to pay for Sky Knight, Mulrooney challenged her to specify what she would cut.

Caldwell did not answer the mayor but said after the meeting that she was not in favor of the 4% salary increase the council approved for city employees as part of the budget. The councilwoman abstained from the vote for the city's budget.

She did join the rest of the council, however, in voting for the increase in business license taxes. Currently, businesses pay a base fee of $78, plus a surcharge that depends on the number of employees. The base fee will rise to $82.

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