With the future of their Esplanade mall apparently at stake, Oxnard officials have championed the tax-sharing idea. They have offered to build a long-planned Town Center regional mall in Oxnard across the river from Ventura and to share the sales tax.
"As the world turns today, Ventura and Oxnard are forced to compete. And both communities lose," said Steve Kinney, director of Oxnard's Economic Development Commission. "But if the two cities work together they can build a new mall that really is a star for the future, and both cities come out ahead."
Skeptics point out, however, that Oxnard was much less eager to cooperate when it was building a flurry of new retail projects along the Ventura Freeway over the last decade, or before the Town Center regional mall fell flat with a sagging economy and Ventura's legal challenge a few years ago.
It is only now that Ventura has a $50-million expansion in hand, and a competitive advantage, that Oxnard is aggressively pushing tax sharing, they said.
"If they wanted a compromise, it should have been a long time ago," Ventura Mayor Jack Tingstrom said in December when Oxnard raised the tax-sharing idea again.
Planner Bill Fulton, who is writing a book on the sales tax wars among Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo, favors sales tax sharing to end cut-throat competition that causes poor community planning. But he noted the historic give-and-take between Oxnard and Ventura as a roadblock to any such agreement.
"A decade ago [Ventura Mayor] Dennis Orrock kept going to Oxnard and complaining about the Town Center project, saying 'Slow it down,' " Fulton said. "Now [Oxnard Councilman] Andres Herrera is standing glumly at the back of the room saying the same thing.
"There is also the issue of civic ego," Fulton said. "The Oxnard-Ventura rivalry is an old one. If Oxnard came to Ventura and said, 'Build at the Town Center and we'll give you all the revenue,' Ventura still wouldn't do it."
Nor is sales-tax sharing always the panacea it might seem.
Camarillo City Manager Bill Little said that when he ran a small Wisconsin city in the 1970s, sales tax revenues were pooled statewide and distributed based on population, property tax and a long list of other criteria.
"Every year there would be this big political battle over the formula," he said, "because if you tweak the formula one way some cities would gain more money, and if you tweak it another, other cities would. The tax-sharing solved one problem but created others.
"I don't think our system [in California] is great," Little said, "but it's better than having 150 state legislators deciding what money goes where."
Opponents of a publicly financed Buenaventura Mall expansion attack it as an unnecessary mixing of government with private enterprise.
"We support the expansion through private investment, not our tax dollars," says a ballot argument against the project.
But Detwiler, the state Senate consultant, noted that the use of public investment to prompt spending by private companies is older than the nation itself.
"The colonies invested heavily to build wharves and turnpikes and canals to lure investment," he said. "And in our own state, the state government invested in the California Water Project to open up the Central Valley to intensive agriculture and provide the water that people drink in Southern California."
There's nothing inherently wrong with such partnerships, Detwiler said. But the level of city-against-city competition for sales tax since 1980 has led to a situation that destabilizes municipal budgets and does nothing to help county or state economies, he said.
"A deal may be good for Ventura or Oxnard, but the broader question is, 'Is it good for California?' " he said. "And frankly, no new sales will be generated by this competition. People aren't coming from Arizona to buy in Ventura. The market is already there, the sales are already there. It's just a question of where the sale occurs. That's churning the economy, not expanding it."
Good city planning has also been a casualty in the sales tax wars, said Judy Corbett, executive director of the nonprofit Local Government Commission in Sacramento, which advises counties and cities on planning issues.
"This whole thing is destroying the hearts of communities and their downtowns, as sales taxes are drawn from there into these big box retail developments like Wal-Mart," Corbett said.
Both sides in the Buenaventura Mall debate have spun a version of Corbett's argument.
Mall supporters say they are trying to bring new life to an aging center near the city's core instead of leaving it to die slowly and jumping to a new mall at the edge of the city.
"Not doing it was a very grim picture for ownership and a very grim picture for the city," said David Jones, vice president of mall owner MCA Buenaventura Assn. of Los Angeles, a subsidiary of a giant Chicago-based real estate investment firm.