The Ventura City Council late Monday approved a special district that would allow downtown merchants to tax themselves to pay for advertising, promotion and street beautification that the city cannot afford.
A core group of 22 merchants helped push the plan, saying it will help stimulate downtown Ventura's flagging economy.
But the council's 6-0 vote in favor of the business improvement district followed a loud and often bitter public hearing where some merchants called the district an unfair tax.
"The improvement of the city belongs to the City Council," said Fernando Valenzuela, owner of a computer service center called Electro Tech Electronics. "We elect these people to improve the city."
David Marcus, owner of the Ventura Antique Market, agreed. "Yes, we need clean streets . . . and we need more high-profile police officers walking a beat in downtown Ventura," he said. "But we already pay enough tax for these services. Enough is enough."
But the opponents failed to muster 51% of the 419 businesses to oppose the district, which would have killed the plan. Only 30% filed protests.
The new district will levy an average annual fee of $275 through the city's billing system on each business. It then will spend the money to promote downtown to shoppers and the potential tenants the district hopes to entice to settle in the dozens of vacant buildings lining Main Street and Thompson Boulevard.
"This is not a tax. . . . We want to pay our own way," said downtown attorney Edward J. Lacey, a member of the 22-member district formation panel. "We want to decide how it will be operated and if it's not working, we will decide how to disband it."
Other fees range from $500 a year for businesses with at least 10 employees to $150 a year for businesses such as banks, doctors and lawyers. Hotels and motels will pay fees ranging from $166 to $999 a year, based on the number of rooms.
The money raised by the annual fees will pay for advertisements, street improvements and special expenses such as holiday decorations and extra security patrols during the holiday shopping season.
The district is bounded by Ash and Olive streets on the east and west, and by Poli Street and the Pacific Ocean on the north and south.