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Rancho P.V. City Council Adopts 3% Utility Tax : Finances: The measure is passed by a 3-1 vote after the mayor shifts her position and calls for voters to decide.

September 09, 1993|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rancho Palos Verdes City Council has adopted a 3% utility tax to pay for road maintenance and repairs, staving off a fiscal crisis that could have left potholes unfilled and rutted streets unpaved.

The tax, approved in a 3-1 vote Tuesday, will be based on consumption, although it is estimated that the average homeowner will pay about $80 more per year. It will be levied on water, gas, electrical and phone bills starting at the end of December.

Another measure, which would extend for another year a fee for landscaping and lighting maintenance, had been tentatively approved last week and will be considered for adoption Oct. 5. The average fee per household would be about $52.

The council also voted 3 to 1 to impose a 10% tax on rounds of golf at private courses, although the city will not derive any revenue yet since there are no such courses in the city, but several are proposed. The tax will not be imposed at the lone public course, Los Verdes Country Club.

The new measures will help make up a projected $2.25-million shortfall in the city's 1994-95 budget. In the past few years, the city has struggled to balance its budget because the state has cut its distribution of property taxes to local governments. The city's tax base also has eroded because of the fall in property values during the recession, city officials said.

Adoption of the utility tax came despite a last-minute attempt to put the matter before voters.

Last week, council members indicated that they would all vote for the utility tax, following a public meeting in which the majority of residents expressed their support.

On Tuesday, however, Mayor Susan Brooks shifted her position and said she would support the tax only if voters approved it at the polls next June. She got the idea for a ballot measure after canvassing neighborhoods and finding that residents were in favor of the tax, but thought it should be up to the voters.

"Yes, we have needs in this city and, I believe, the people want the opportunity to have a say," she said.

Brooks said that next month she will oppose extending the landscape and lighting fee unless it goes on the ballot, something she said the council had pledged to do.

"We need to follow through on our promises," Brooks said. "We need to be accountable."

Other council members, however, sharply criticized Brooks' proposal. Since the spring, city officials have had town hall meetings and hired a consultant to conduct focus groups and opinion surveys to gauge public reaction to the proposed taxes.

"I do not believe, that after we have taken all this information, that you change course because you talked to a few people over the weekend," Councilman John McTaggart told Brooks.

Voters repeatedly have rejected taxes. A proposed parcel tax failed at the ballot box last year, and the council repealed a 5% utility tax in 1989 after voters rejected it.

"If (residents) vote no, the city is in a position of bankruptcy," Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach said.

A city survey conducted this summer showed that 54% of residents polled supported the taxes, but political fallout from raising taxes was not far from the minds of the council.

During the meeting, Bacharach and Brooks heatedly exchanged accusations that their positions were politically motivated.

Brooks suggested that Bacharach does not feel accountable to the electorate because she is retiring from the council to pursue a transportation consulting business. Bacharach said she resented the remark.

Brooks, who pledged in her 1991 campaign that she would not vote to raise taxes without placing a measure on the ballot, has expressed interest in challenging Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey) next year for her seat in Congress.

Councilman Steve Kuykendall also pledged in the 1991 campaign not to raise taxes without voter consent, although he voted for the utility tax.

That promise, he said, "was based on the information available. It is what I thought was a proper course."

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