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Recount Is Vowed for Tax OKd by 5 Votes

June 16, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

If you think your vote doesn't count, consider Rialto, where a $10-million annual utility tax just passed by a mere five votes.

That means that in a city of nearly 95,000 residents, fewer than 0.0002% of the registered voters made the difference in passage of a tax that will cost each homeowner and merchant an average of $12 to $25 per month.

The Rialto City Council is expected to certify the election results today. Opponents promise to demand a recount.

Officials in the former citrus town promoted the tax to pay for more police officers and firefighters and improve parks and senior citizen programs.

They said Rialto has struggled for years to provide municipal services to a growing population despite stiff funding cuts from the state.

The 8% tax on all utilities will expire in five years, and senior citizens and low-income residents can apply for an exemption.

Dubbed Measure K, it received 1,649 "yes" votes and 1,644 "no" votes, according to semiofficial results from the June 3 election.

Any registered voter in Rialto can challenge the results by agreeing to pay for a recount. The fee will be refunded if the recount changes the outcome. A hand recount would cost about $850 and a machine recount about $340.

No organized opposition campaigned against the tax, but former Councilman Ed Scott spoke against it and has now promised to demand a recount.

Scott, who narrowly lost a bid in 2000 for a seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, said the tax will be hard on local businesses and discourage firms from moving to Rialto.

"It's expensive for businesses," he said.

Several business owners agree. Tom Bradley, owner of Mike Dyell Machine Shop in Rialto, said the tax will greatly increase his monthly utility costs.

Scott said he opposed the tax because it came with no maximum for businesses that routinely pay large utility bills.

He also said the tax included no guarantee that the money will be used to hire police and firefighters. Scott suggested the tax passed because few business owners knew it was on the ballot.

Voter turnout for the measure was 13.5%, one of the lowest in five years, according to county records.

June Overholt, Rialto's chief financial officer, rejected the argument that the tax will chase off businesses, noting that neighboring cities San Bernardino and Pomona already charge a utility users tax.

She also said the measure was supported by the Rialto Chamber of Commerce, among other business groups.

Rialto Police Officer Gary Cunningham, president of the police union in Rialto, said he was surprised by the low voter turnout and the slim margin of victory.

"When it came down to it, no one came out to vote," he said.

He said the city can use the money to beef up what he called "bare-bones" staffing at the police and fire departments.

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