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Mayors Lobby to Save Funds

Cities are warning Schwarzenegger that rolling back the car tax could force layoffs in local government and threaten public safety.

October 21, 2003|Patrick Mcgreevy and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Alarmed by Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's promise to reduce the car tax, mayors up and down California are calling, writing and otherwise lobbying the soon-to-be governor to warn him that cutting more money for cities would result in layoffs and threaten public safety.

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales said the mayors of the state's 10 largest cities are trying to schedule a meeting with Schwarzenegger "to find out what his plans are" and convey the mayors' concerns.

At the same time, some mayors are also planning to take their cause directly to voters. A group of big city mayors, including Heather Fargo of Sacramento and Ron Loveridge of Riverside, is putting the finishing touches on a statewide ballot initiative that would prohibit the state from cutting money set aside for local governments, such as the vehicle license fee, without approval of voters statewide. A draft of the ballot measure is expected to be submitted to the attorney general this week.

"Whenever there is a state budget crisis, we [cities] become an ATM machine for state government," said Loveridge, president of the League of California Cities, which is drafting the initiative. If voters approve it, he said, it would give cities "a predictable revenue stream ... so we don't have to go to Sacramento every year on bended knee."

The car tax goes straight to cities to pay for everything from libraries to police officers. If the tax is rolled back by Schwarzenegger, it could cost local cities and counties up to $4 billion if other revenue sources are not found.

Schwarzenegger has vowed to roll back the vehicle license fee, which was tripled this year to help balance the budget, even taking it to voters in an initiative if he cannot get it done by state government.

At the same time, Schwarzenegger has sought to assure city officials that he will not slash their funding.

"They should have enough funds and I will make sure of that," the governor-elect told reporters Thursday.

But despite these assurances, many government leaders are skeptical that the governor can roll back the vehicle license fee, hold the line on new taxes, plug a multibillion-dollar deficit in the state budget, fund education and transportation priorities and maintain past levels of funding to cities.

"My opinion is it's not possible to do everything people want to do, to spare local governments, and to do what the governor-elect wants to do, which is to roll back the vehicle license fee," said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys).

Hence, the frantic round of mayoral lobbying, to make sure the governor-elect is well aware of the potential danger to city coffers.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn said he has talked to Schwarzenegger over the phone about his concerns. He said he emphasized to the governor-elect that if the car tax is cut, an equal amount of money should be found and directed to cities as a replacement. Los Angeles could lose $175 million annually if the vehicle license fee is rolled back and not replaced.

If the cities fail to head off massive funding cuts, the result could be layoffs, not just of parks workers, but also firefighters and police officers, Hahn warned.

Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a Republican and former Assembly speaker, said he will try to remind Schwarzenegger and his team of the state's commitment to "backfill" vehicle license fee funds allocated to cities and counties.

"There's no city that would survive without significant layoffs if [that money] is taken away," said Pringle.

For his part, Hahn on Monday convened a meeting of 18 state legislators representing parts of Los Angeles to make his concerns clear and to ask them to work together to protect the city from further cuts by Sacramento.

Assembly members, including Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), attended the meeting with Hahn and pledged to help the city. But both also said Hahn and other Los Angeles city officials have to be more aggressive on the issue.

"We [legislators] want to be helpful, but the mayor and the City Council have to do a better job articulating the importance of this to our constituents," Nunez said.

State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco, agreed that cities must fight harder.

"If I was a city mayor, I'd find it depressing," Burton said, adding mayors ought to rally their citizens against the cuts by having public meetings to "explain they're shutting down firehouse and police stations and [why] libraries will be open from 12 to 3 every other Thursday."

Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) said he supports rolling back the car tax and "keeping local governments whole" but said the initiative proposed by the League of California Cities might be needed to make sure local municipalities are spared.

The initiative would bar the state from cutting revenue to cities, counties and local districts unless the cuts are approved by the Legislature and voters statewide. Hahn said he supports the initiative "in concept" but is waiting to see a draft.

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Times staff writer Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.

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