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San Marino to Vote on Tax for Police, Fire Services : Public safety: Residents have approved three levies since 1982. Measure requires approval by two-thirds of voters.

October 27, 1994|RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While city council members in the San Gabriel Valley hear rumblings about recalls when they so much as discuss taxes, San Marino Councilman Eugene H. Dryden slings the "T" word around without hesitation.

On Election Day, voters in his city will decide whether to tax themselves several hundred dollars a year to pay for police and fire services. Such a tax requires approval of two-thirds of the voters, but Dryden, a supporter of the tax measure, Proposition I, isn't too worried.

City residents have passed the tax three times since 1982. The last time, in 1990, 76% of the voters cast ballots to spend the money that would keep San Marino--well, San Marino. It is a city with neatly manicured lawns and grand homes served by its own police, fire and paramedic agencies, and where emergency response times are measured in seconds and serious crimes are rare.

"People in San Marino are unique in that they are very concerned about preserving the city as it is," Dryden said.

With a median household income of $127,104 and a median home price of more than $500,000, San Marino can afford such preservation.

The city typifies a situation that is growing increasingly common in California: With less state money to even things out, the gap between the have cities and the have-not cities is widening.

"As worried as San Marinians are about crime, they don't confront the crime faced by low-income communities that cannot afford these fees and taxes," said Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

San Marino traditionally ranks among the most crime-free towns in Los Angeles County. Tax advocates say that is partly a reflection of the 13,000-resident city having its own 26-officer Police Department. Those officers plus 22 firefighters and nine paramedics working shifts around the clock within a few minutes of any street help keep home values up and insurance costs down, they said.

By comparison, Sierra Madre, the city nearest in size to San Marino, has 11 sworn police officers and a volunteer Fire Department with a full-time chief and two fire inspectors.

"Response times are much longer in other areas," said Mike Johnson, a former San Marino councilman. "We've got to have (the tax)."

San Marino Police Capt. Gary Isaacs said the departments respond to emergency calls within two minutes--"three minutes, top"--while surrounding cities allow up to a six-minute response time. Pasadena police answer emergency calls in three to five minutes, they said.

The San Marino tax was originally enacted in 1982 after Proposition 13, which was approved in 1978, rolled back real-estate assessments and set strict caps on property taxes. San Marino was hit particularly hard by the property tax rollback because with relatively little business, it had a small sales-tax base.

The public safety tax accounts for 25% of the city's budget because in recent years the state has grabbed more of the city's tax revenue.

If the levy is not renewed and expires in 1995, "the city will lose approximately 50% of its police and fire budget and 90% of the paramedic service budget," said Bob Twist, chairman of San Marino Citizens for Public Safety, the committee for Proposition I.

No formal opposition group has emerged to fight Proposition I. However, resident Gene G. Ruckh has written an argument against the proposition on the ballot, asking why the city has not presented residents with a comparison of the cost of contracting out services.

Ruckh, an anti-tax crusader, also contends that the city spends significant time helping neighboring cities with public safety services, and that plentiful reserves could be used instead.

Members of Citizens for Public Safety disagree, saying it would cost about 15% more to contract out for services. They say mutual-aid requests from other municipalities account for only 12% of calls, and that other cities reciprocate, while reserves would run out in just over two years if devoted to public safety.

In fiscal year 1995-96, homeowners would pay $324 to $881, depending on the size and location of the lot, city officials said. The average homeowner would pay $447 annually.

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