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Upscale Town Confronts Cracking Streets

Like many other cities, South Pasadena is in a fiscal bind. But residents may resist new taxes.

March 16, 2004|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Blaring car horns and ringing crossing gate bells smother the sounds of chattering friends and clanking coffee cups in South Pasadena's outdoor cafes.

SUVs and convertibles snarl traffic and compete for limited parking along small-town streets esteemed for antique stores, clothing boutiques and an old-fashioned pharmacy and soda fountain.

Cracked asphalt, weeds and untrimmed trees blemish sidewalks and roads in neighborhoods known for historic Craftsman-style homes, stone churches and highly regarded public schools.

An upscale enclave about 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, South Pasadena finds itself in an uneasy position. With a budget pruned to the nub and services cut drastically, city officials say the best way to fix problems such as deteriorating streets and parking shortages is to tax the town's 25,000 residents.

"South Pasadena is at a crossroads," City Manager Sean Joyce said, sitting at a table in his office stacked high with folders documenting the town's problems. "Conditions are unsatisfactory or below standards. The community has to decide what its expectations are" -- and whether residents "are prepared to pay more in taxes."

Rich and poor, big and small, California's cash-strapped cities face similar problems, partly the result of the lingering state budget crisis. To reduce a $14-billion deficit, state officials say, they need to take more money from municipalities, including $1.3 billion to transfer into educational funds.

Like other cities, South Pasadena is bracing for the financial hit. The size of its current budget deficit remains unclear, Joyce said, pending notification about how much money the state will take. Past estimates put the city's shortfall between $800,000 and $1.8 million.

To compensate for such losses, cities have asked voters to help pick up the tab.

In the past, South Pasadena residents have dipped into bank accounts for hometown improvements. During the last two years, voters have passed a 5% utility tax and a $29-million general obligation bond for the South Pasadena Unified School District although a $28.7-million school bond approved in 1995 has yet to be paid off.

But last year, a ballot measure calling for a 4.8% utility tax narrowly failed to muster the required two-thirds vote, perhaps signaling that residents feel tapped out.

Voters' reluctance to approve new revenue measures could be compounded as new city fees are imposed. Earlier this year, the South Pasadena City Council raised sewer rates; next month it will consider increasing water rates.

"We need the money," Joyce said. "We have no wiggle room in our budget."

He sighed. "I've been here for more than seven years, and we've always been lean," Joyce said. "I don't know when the good times were."

Colette Richards, a lifelong South Pasadena resident and longtime business owner, said she worried about the city's future -- and her own. The 39-year-old co-owns Buster's Ice Cream & Coffee Stop on Mission Street, in a hub of mom-and-pop restaurants and shops.

Buster's is near a station for the Gold Line railway, which opened last summer. Richards welcomed the train -- noise and all -- because she thought it would help sales. "Business is only mediocre," she said, declining to discuss specifics. "Parking is so bad, people don't ride, or they don't want to come to this area to visit."

The city is using grant money to build 142 spaces near the Gold Line depot, but Richards and city officials agree that more parking is needed in the area and in other parts of South Pasadena.

If only there were money for it.

Frustration was evident last month at a standing-room-only meeting that the town held to explain South Pasadena's fiscal difficulties and prepare residents for a tax initiative, possibly during a special election in September.

Longtime residents contrasted the city's charm with its deteriorating streets, buildings, sewers and water systems. Voices rose as they wondered how the community had gotten into such a mess, especially a community noted for its commitment to successfully fighting off perceived threats, such as a proposed extension of the 710 Freeway, which would replace historic homes and streets.

The most emotional issue at a meeting, one that drew dozens of uniformed men and women, concerned South Pasadena's police and fire departments, which the city has owned since its incorporation in 1888.

Earlier this year, the city announced it would research costs of contracting emergency services with neighboring agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Residents protested to council members and decorated their yards with signs supporting South Pasadena's police and fire personnel. The news hurt already-sagging morale among city employees, among the lowest paid in the San Gabriel Valley.

Combined, South Pasadena's police and fire agencies employ about 60 people and cost more than $8 million annually.

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