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Hahn Proposes Council Pursue a City Sales Tax Hike for Police

CALIFORNIA

November 06, 2004|Noam N. Levey and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

Three days after Los Angeles County voters rejected a higher sales tax to raise money for law enforcement, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn said Friday he wants the city to seek voter approval in March for its own tax increase to pay for more police officers.

"I haven't talked to members of the council, who have to be the ones who have to put it on the ballot. But I think I'd urge them to do that," Hahn said. "I'm inclined to think that it came so close in the city of Los Angeles that it's worth trying again."

Nearly 64% of the city's voters backed the countywide sales tax measure Tuesday, just shy of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to pass a citywide measure.

But many council members said Friday that they are concerned about rushing to put a tax measure on the March 8 ballot.

To get a measure on that ballot, the council must vote by Nov. 17 to direct the city attorney to prepare the necessary paperwork.

Meanwhile, several of Hahn's mayoral opponents -- who will face the mayor on the March ballot -- accused Hahn of pushing a risky tax hike after three years of failing to achieve a meaningful expansion of the city's police force.

"I am concerned that the public is reluctant to support a tax hike with so much scandal and fraud surrounding the mayor's administration," said Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, hitting a theme also sounded by state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley).

Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg said he supports other methods for raising money to pay for police officers. "I don't think we've turned over every stone," he said.

Hahn, who repeatedly touts the citywide drop in crime in recent years, has made public safety a cornerstone of his administration and of his campaign for reelection.

He says he has expanded the police force by 450 officers.

But the mayor did not play a central role in the campaign for Measure A, which won the support of 59.6% of county voters.

Hahn said Friday he would campaign for a citywide tax hike, though it is unclear how much energy he could devote to such an effort if he is in a tough fight to win reelection.

The mayor may not have to make that choice, however.

Even some of Measure A's strongest backers on the Los Angeles City Council expressed reservations about a city measure, which the mayor said he hoped would boost the sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75% to pay for more than 1,200 new police officers.

"My heart is there," said council President Alex Padilla, who helped lead the unsuccessful campaign for Measure A.

But Padilla said that a successful campaign would probably require substantial fundraising from some of the same donors who supported the unsuccessful county measure, a delicate and uncertain prospect.

Padilla also said he worried that a sales tax campaign could get politicized if it appears on the same ballot as a contested mayor's race.

"Putting it on the ballot is really just the first step," Padilla said. "We're still looking at all the options."

The city could elect to put a measure on the May ballot, when a mayoral runoff may take place.

County leaders are also beginning to discuss alternative ways to raise money for not just police, but also jails and other crime-reduction initiatives that would have been funded by Measure A.

Several City Council members said they were concerned that boosting the sales tax in the city could put it at a competitive disadvantage compared to surrounding communities.

"It's a bad idea," said Councilman Dennis Zine of the San Fernando Valley. "We would hurt our businesses.... If you're going to buy a refrigerator or an air conditioner, wouldn't you go to the Sears in Burbank instead of the Sears in L.A.?"

Zine and other council members also worried that crime-fighting efforts could be undermined if Los Angeles were to hire new police officers when the county does not have the money to incarcerate those arrested and convicted of committing crimes.

The Sheriff's Department, which does not have enough deputies to operate all of its jails, has released more than 63,000 inmates before their sentences were up.

Hahn dismissed that concern, saying county leaders must find the money to fund the Sheriff's Department. "We can't not do what we need to do to make this city safe," the mayor said.

The council's public safety committee is scheduled to discuss the issue Monday. Many council members said they would wait to decide what to do until they heard more.

"It appears that the city has the potential to do it," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who is also running for mayor against Hahn. "I'm just not ready to say that it is the best thing to do right now."

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