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Whatever the Name, Fees Are Rising to Close Budget Gaps : Revenues: Nine cities have increased or imposed taxes in the last year and more are weighing similar actions. Many services are no longer free.

August 01, 1993|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH AREA — Call them "fees" "levies" "assessments" or even "revenue enhancements." What they are in most cases are taxes, and what they are doing is going up.

Staying in a Long Beach hotel? Pay a little extra for bed tax. Use gas or electricity, have a telephone, drink tap water? Pay higher taxes in Artesia, Downey, Maywood, Paramount and Whittier. Driving around with a cellular phone in Norwalk? In October, when the city's new utility user tax kicks in, you'll be paying $3 or $4 more a month. Own property in South Gate? Soon you could be paying $5 a month on every parcel you own.

In fact, at least nine Southeast-area cities have raised or imposed some kind of tax in the last year. City officials in four other cities are considering creating taxes or raising existing ones. And in most cities, building and planning permits, business licenses and trash pickup fees have been raised, and services that were once free come at a price. For example, taking a dip in the Hawaiian Gardens municipal swimming pool costs 50 cents, or 10 recyclable cans, and driving into Downey's Wilderness Park is $2 per car.

"We are not doing this because we want more money. We are doing this because the state wants more money, " said Lowell Williams, finance director in Downey, which raised utility taxes from 3% to 5% two weeks ago.

"We have a saying around here that goes: 'State takes the dough and the cities take the blow.' The state is forcing local cities to become its tax collector," he added.

In the last two years, the state has taken millions of dollars from cities to balance its budget. Already battered by the recession, cities must make up that lost money somehow, and after cutting services and staff, city officials say they must turn to taxpayers. So utility user taxes and assessment districts, in which property owners share the cost of such things as park maintenance, landscaping and new lighting, have become increasingly common.

In fact, assessment districts have become so popular that two Whittier-area school districts are using this tool, once reserved for cities, to help maintain stadiums, playing fields, tennis courts and other facilities used by residents.

Property owners who live within the Whittier Union High School District or the Whittier City School District are being charged a recreation district fee of about $20 per year.

Creating assessment districts and imposing new taxes without incurring the wrath of taxpayers can be tricky business. Critics blasted the Whittier school districts' recreation fee as an illegal property tax and sued the district. So far, however, the fees have survived court challenges. Recently, Covina residents recalled all five City Council members after they imposed a 6% utility user tax.

"I think people are just getting tired of being taxed and not seeing the results for it," said Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "If this trend continues I think we will have another tax revolt in California. People are frustrated."

Several Southeast-area cities have taken the lesson of Covina to heart.

In La Habra Heights, the City Council has taken the uncommon step of placing a proposed 3% utility user tax on the November ballot. In several cities, the taxes have been earmarked for specific purposes.

In Paramount, the utility user tax was raised from 1% to 3% and the $930,000 a year it generates will help pay for the city's anti-gang programs. In Long Beach, an increase in the bed tax from 11% to 12% will raise $500,000--enough to pay for 50 more police officers.

Bellflower officials are hoping to impose a 5% utility user tax to pay for 12 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies to patrol the city full time as part of a community-based policing program.

Linda Lowry, acting city administrator for Bellflower, said city staff have talked to Neighborhood Watch groups and civic organizations, and hearings are planned to discuss the proposed tax.

Perhaps the most hotly debated proposal in the Southeast area is in South Gate, where officials have proposed shifting the $1.3-million annual maintenance cost of two city parks to property owners. City Manager Todd Argow said the city's Landscape and Lighting District assessment fee would increase by about $5 per month for the typical residential owner.

Argow said his staff has been talking to "every civic group we can think of" to discuss the tax and has set up a hot line at City Hall. Property owners recently debated the issue for three hours at a raucous hearing where 36 people spoke against the tax and 18 supported it.

Insurance broker Paul Avila was typical of the critics. Avila owns four properties in South Gate and would have to pay about $20 a month in assessment fees. He said he is tired of paying higher and higher taxes.

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