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No Car Tax, No Deputy?

Catalina fears loss of its extra summer officer

October 05, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

On Catalina Island, a close but not too close 22 miles off mainland California, most of the 3,500 residents drive golf carts or boats.

The only gridlock in Avalon usually involves shopping carts at the pipsqueak Vons.

So why, in this largely car-free getaway spot, would anyone care that two of the three front-runners in the election to replace Gov. Gray Davis if he is recalled want to kill the recently tripled state vehicle license fee?

Because some folks in the emerald bay town know that as of now, the fee that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock would erase helps cities pay for vital services. And if it were taken away, Avalon could afford only one deputy on the street.

That's OK -- except in the summer, when the population swells to 15,000 people crammed into 2.5 square miles. The city uses its share of the license fee -- $194,000 -- to fund a second patrol deputy during peak season.

"Oh, my gosh," said Catrina Awalt, owner of the ocean-themed boutique Two's Company in the heart of town, "If we only have one deputy on duty and something happens.... "

"Losing the extra help is definitely going to hurt us," Wayne Griffin, Avalon Chamber of Commerce president, said bluntly.

For many merchants, Griffin said, this stark upshot has transformed a remote-feeling electoral circus into a very personal threat.

City Manager Rob Clark said debate over the car tax and its link to city services has been largely squelched in a noisy recall race. But the reality is that local government is going to get financially creamed if the tax goes down, he said, unless the $4 billion it would annually generate statewide is somehow replaced.

"What local governments around the state are concerned about with the recall effort is, where do the candidates stand on this issue?" Clark said.

Several Avalon merchants said they would vote against the recall and those candidates who favor cutting the car tax, an annual levy charged on each registered vehicle based on its value.

"I voted for Gray Davis in the last election because I didn't feel I had an appealing choice -- me and 4 million-something other people," said David Creigh, owner of Lloyd's of Avalon Confectionary, a red and white mainstay that boasts the shop's original 1934 taffy puller.

Campaign promises to cut the tax, he said, are a cynical gesture by politicians counting on voter ignorance.

"What bothers me is the suggestion by these candidates, for the sound-bite appeal of saying they are repealing a tax, that it will save money," said Creigh, the married father of two young children, who moved to the island from Long Beach in 1995 after a career in corporate law.

"The people who buy this don't seem to realize that it's not saving them anything; it will impact their daily lives in their own city," he said. "What I know about the license fee is it's been around since before I was born in 1936, and repealing it pushes the economic burden down on the cities, who will have to fend for themselves."

Indeed, the fee has been around since 1935. But the hike was ordered earlier this year when the Davis administration was searching for revenue to fill a $38.2-billion budget gap.

Getting an increase through the Legislature, which would have required the votes of at least a few tax-averse Republicans, had virtually no chance of success. So administration legal experts looked to the 1998 law that then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed to gradually roll back the fee by 67%. Although their opinion is being challenged in court, they say a provision in the law called for automatically restoring the fee if the state's financial health ever slumped -- which it did this year.

When the increase was announced this summer, it helped fuel the drive to recall Davis.

The vast majority of Catalina's occupants live on tiny streets threading back from Avalon harbor into more remote canyons where extremely limited housing is cheaper. A few hundred people, mostly Catalina Island Conservancy workers and the faculty and students of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, live an hour's drive away in remote Two Harbors, an outpost that, like most of the island, is governed by Los Angeles County.

In incorporated Avalon, serious crime is as scarce as cars, which are primarily used by the hotels or workers on the island's rugged interior.

How much danger could there be in a place where news travels so fast that one harbor master enjoys telling someone that Barbra Streisand's yacht just motored in -- then clocking how long it takes for the fictional gossip to boomerang back to him?

But even a small town resort has its irritants. And any community has its share of domestic abuse, vandalism and drunks in public. It also has an infusion of visitors, from weekend boaters to more passengers now coming ashore from cruise ships.

The perception of safety is critical in a town where the service industry worker survives year-round off the seasonal traveler.

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