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Ventura Sees Hope for Tax Increase

A survey commissioned by the city finds some support for a 0.25% hike to benefit public safety.

April 12, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Officials in Ventura say they have found promising support for increasing the sales tax in order to hire additional police officers and firefighters.

This week, officials announced the results of a telephone poll in which 64% of those contacted said they would back a 0.25% hike.

They plan to spend several months meeting with residents to determine whether there is sufficiently widespread support for such a tax increase.

If so, the City Council could vote to place a measure on the November ballot.

If the measure receives more than two-thirds of the votes, Ventura would become the first city in the county to have a 7.5% sales tax, still under neighboring Santa Barbara County's 7.75%.

Pollsters hired by the city indicated to those they called that Ventura needed the extra tax money.

After they told prospective voters that violent crime in Ventura had increased 15% between 2004 and 2005 and that the volume of Fire Department calls has gone up 66% since the early 1990s, the respondents expressed increased support for additional hiring.

"The police force is doing a good job, but they're stretched fairly thin because they haven't added any new staff for about 15 years," said Councilman Bill Fulton, an urban planning expert who joined the council in 2003.

Police Chief Pat Miller said that because of limited staffing, response times have slowed for both the Police and Fire departments. While the agencies have a stated goal of responding to serious calls within five minutes 90% or more of the time, last year police met that goal only in 57% of calls, and the Fire Department achieved it just two-thirds of the time.

"We don't have a public safety crisis in Ventura, and we're not trying to manufacture one," Miller said. "But we have long had an issue of inadequate public safety funding."

Fire Chief Michael Lavery said that additional staffing is crucial to continue providing the level of service residents expect. "What it comes down to is service to the community," he said. "Seconds count and our response time is down."

With a 0.25% sales tax hike, the city estimates it would generate $4.3 million annually in added revenue. The Police Department, which would receive about 60% of those dollars, wants to hire 15 more officers. It currently has 127.

The Fire Department has asked for 10 or 11 new firefighters and paramedics to staff a seventh fire station that the agency hopes to build near Harbor Boulevard. It currently has 73 firefighters.

Don Facciano, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., said opinion has been mixed in the area for tax increases.

While county voters in 2002 approved $356 million in bonds to improve local community colleges, they balked in the fall of 2004 and rejected rival measures to increase the sales tax -- for transportation improvements in one proposal and to purchase open space in the other.

"Normally the taxpayers association is against tax increases, but it's a very worthy cause," Facciano said of the new proposal. "How can you argue against public safety? If you want increased services you have to pay for it."

The city's poll, conducted March 25-29 by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, a Santa Monica opinion research company, queried 600 voters likely to cast ballots in November. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.

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