Citizens: What happened to Measure L?

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

As members of the Citizens Oversight Committee for Measure L reflect on the first eight months of collecting and spending a city sales tax recently passed to augment police and street funding, some of those members point out that the city actually funded zero road-paving projects and is proposing to reduce the police force by two officers.

In light of that spending trend – which is exactly opposite to how the sales-tax measure was sold to the public – oversight members and residents alike are asking a question that has as yet gone unanswered by city officials: What happened to Measure L money?

Several months ago City Mana-ger Dennis Speer brought to the council’s attention a $1.3-million deficit between revenues and expenses, blaming both underperforming revenues and spending obligations left out of the previous budget for the fiscal crisis.

The city held a series of intensive budget workshops over the last few weeks that examined city spending by department. Although final details and a summary for the 2013-14 budget have not yet been made available to the public, virtually no layoffs and few cuts of any significance were identified. That prompted the News Review to ask how that budget shortfall was being made up. Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston responded that the city had Measure L — which also brought in $1.3 million this fiscal year.

“If the city is going to be that blatant in their failure to follow through with how they promised to spend Measure L, I am wondering what the point is of even having an oversight board,” said Committee Member Scott Garver.

When promoting the special tax leading up to the June 2012 election, the council pledged to voters that, if they approved the three-quarter-of-a-percent sales tax, the city would spend it only on police and streets. To ensure that the city followed through, the council promised a public oversight board.

That added layer of accountability was an apparent attempt to strengthen public trust after three similar measures failed in recent years. City officials have speculated that general-sales-tax measures, which require only a simple majority, fail because the public has no guarantee that the money will be spent as promised. Special-tax initiatives have garnered more than 50-percent support from voters, but have still lacked the two-thirds majority approval required to pass.

Measure L earned 55-percent voter approval on June 5. On June 6, the city proposed spending some of that money on parks and recreation. The public immediately decried the act as in direct violation of the public promise. The city withdrew that line item, but still ended up overspending in the parks and rec budget — an action which some claim contributed to that $1.3 million shortfall discovered months later.

Phil Salvatore, another member of the committee, spent hours researching, compiling and presenting a document that showed the city’s historical spending trends by department. Salvatore, a cost analyst by profession, told the News Review that in order to see whether the city was in fact augmenting police and street spending, a baseline needed to be established to determine historical spending.

This sparked criticism from city officials, who said that the committee was functioning above its prescribed role, and that its job was only to confirm that Measure L funds were spent on public-safety and street-improvement projects.

But Salvatore and Garver, along with other residents, point out that the city’s budget for those departments relies heavily upon Measure L. Critics further point out that by supplementing general-fund support with Measure L to balance the budget, the city is not making equitable cuts across the board. One resident pointed out that without Measure L, the Police Department has absorbed a more-than 20-percent cut, while the Parks and Rec. Department took only 10.

Garver said that by cutting the police force to 19 officers in order to spare cuts to the parks department, the city was not following through in good faith with delivering an executable budget without Measure L. He said it is disingenuous to assume that the public will continue to approve a tax that did not increase the level of service, and when Measure L sunsets the city would be without long-term funding for some 35 percent of the police force.

Others note that if the city wants to pass a continuance of Measure L, not to mention the parks assessment discussed as a potential budget solution, the council will have to revive the damaged trust of the voters.

“The five of you have an opportunity to write your own headline,” Garver told the council. “Make the tough decision by preserving what you can.”

Salvatore pointed out that the focus to preserve parks and recreation simply made streets bear the brunt of cuts. “Public works has fallen on the sword for the city … Parks and Rec is still talking about premiere parks and saving jobs, but as a result our infrastructure suffers.”

“When you find myself and Mr. Garver saying the same thing, you are getting both ends of the political spectrum, and it means you likely have a big problem,” said Mike Neel.

He said he does not understand why the city, in the current economic climate, is not reducing salaries — an issue that has been raised by the public numerous times in City Hall.

Neel also said that the city was working backwards by allocating Measure L funds before those of the regular budget. “The entire process was contrary to what was presented to the citizens of this town.”

McQuiston said that the city is on an incredibly tight schedule to make decisions. “I wish we could have made everyone happy, but that’s not possible. Everyone was cut. You’ll see that in the summary.”

Story First Published: 2013-05-22