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Crime Fight Belongs to All

November 17, 2003

Heeding complaints and threats of legal challenges, the Lancaster City Council has wisely backed away from a controversial proposal to levy a tax on landlords to pay for stepped-up policing of neighborhoods that have a high concentration of rental properties. The council voted to postpone until December its vote on an ordinance that would assess rental property owners an annual $95-per-unit fee for improved security. Leading the charge against the measure are local Realtors, many of whom own or manage rentals and complain that they are being singled out to pay for the solution to the problem of rising crime. They're right.

Serious crimes in the once-sleepy suburb at the northeast tip of Los Angeles County have jumped by more than 60% in the last four years, and research by a special prosecutor assigned to deal with the problem shows crime is highest in the neighborhoods with the most rentals. His proposed solutions -- train landlords to better screen prospective tenants, force apartment complexes to improve security, encourage neighborhood watch programs and hire more sheriff's deputies -- are good ideas that have worked in other cities. But his idea of forcing landlords -- who would likely pass costs on to tenants -- to foot the program's $2-million bill is neither fair nor wise.

Lancaster officials are understandably desperate to find ways to deal with the consequences of exploding growth in their city, one of Los Angeles County's fastest-growing suburbs. Low rents coupled with high vacancy rates brought about by the decline of the aerospace industry have drawn waves of newcomers fleeing South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. A nearby state prison has made Lancaster's rental homes an attractive place for inmates' families to set up housekeeping. And the Antelope Valley is a major production center for methamphetamine; addicts flock to neighborhoods where drugs are plentiful and cheap. "I know it's dangerous to generalize," says Deputy Dist. Atty. David Berger, architect of the rental fee proposal, "but there's no getting away from the statistics. Gangs, drugs, graffiti, stolen property.... It's the rental properties causing the majority of the problems."

There is no disagreement among Lancaster residents and officials about the need for stepped-up law enforcement. But at an angry hours-long meeting last week, this payment plan drew threats of legal action from groups as disparate as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and the American Civil Liberties Union. That was enough to convince the council to send the measure back to the drawing board.

When it comes up before them again next month, council members ought to bite the bullet and either declare the program important enough to fund from its admittedly tight city budget or ask voters to approve a tax increase that spreads the cost of fighting crime among everyone.

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