Tax hike masks Stanton's public-safety pay problem

Stanton has become the stage for a political brawl: in one corner, city officials and the public employee union leaders who backed the measure to give Stanton – Orange County’s smallest city and one of its poorest – the county’s highest sales tax; in the other, residents and business owners working to repeal Measure GG, the city’s 2014 voter-approved sales tax hike.

Late last year, the City Council grudgingly voted to put that citizen-backed tax repeal on the November ballot.

Until then, outsiders might have reasonably believed the people of Stanton were united in their generous desire to pay more for goods and services than anyone else in Orange County – a full percent more than neighboring Anaheim, Cypress and Garden Grove.

The pro-tax propaganda began during the 2014 campaign, when the city spent residents’ money to make the case for taking more of it. There was city money for polling and “informational brochures” targeting voters, city money to research effective messaging and city money for a direct-mail campaign with photos depicting families and firefighters along with information about Measure GG.

Outgunned retail business owners who had the temerity to post signs saying “No on Measure GG” were visited by off-duty code enforcement officers and off-duty sheriffs, who asked innocuous questions about their businesses and city services. In some cases, these off-duty city employees reportedly suggested the business owners take down their “No on GG” signs because they might dissuade city workers from shopping or eating there.

After Election Day, some in the media congratulated Stanton voters for their wisdom. In April 2015, the Orange County Register airdropped David Whiting into post-election Stanton, a place the columnist declared “Orange County’s scrappiest city.”

What makes O.C.’s tiniest town so scrappy? According to Whiting, it’s the willingness of Stanton’s residents to raise their own taxes.

Yes, Whiting paused to spotlight “a former gangbanger, paralyzed from a .32-caliber bullet to the spine,” tractor-mowing a 10-acre park by himself – for free. That’s truly scrappy.

But Whiting was really enthusiastic about Stanton’s self-inflicted economic wound. Raising sales taxes from 8 percent to 9 percent is evidence, he reported, that this is “the littlest city that can.”

Among the post-taxation signs of renewal Whiting found, one was literal: “The placard on the visitor’s counter at Stanton City Hall captures this comeback story,” Whiting reported. “It says that by boosting (the) sales tax from 8 percent to 9 percent, the city has restored personnel to handle 911 calls.”

Whiting’s post-election claim – that the tax hike had improved public safety – mirrored the claim city officials used to sell the tax hike and avoid a confrontation with the firefighters and sheriffs who work in Stanton.

Real reporting might have revealed other ways to manage Stanton’s budget without pick-pocketing residents and wounding businesses surrounded by competitors in cities with lower sales taxes.

For instance, my colleague Ed Ring has found that Stanton could eliminate what it calls its “structural deficit” of $1.8 million through a 14 percent decrease to the average total pay and benefits earned by its 33 sheriffs and 15 firefighters. Even after that reduction, firefighters would earn average pay and benefits of $187,285 per year, and sheriffs would earn $160,412 per year.

To put these public safety rates of pay into perspective, the median earnings for full-time, year-round employed residents of Stanton is $35,769.

There’s another reform that could alleviate the structural budget deficit: sell off about five dozen private properties the city purchased with redevelopment funds. As reported by the Register, the “Stanton Redevelopment Agency had two bond issues: One for $15.3 million, on which it will pay investors a whopping 9.496 percent interest; and another for $12.5 million, on which it will be paying 9.346 percent interest.”

Translation: Stanton is paying $2.6 million per year – $800,000 per year more than its “structural deficit” – to own property that the city should never have bought. The city should sell that property immediately – not as part of a dystopian scheme to sell off libraries and parks, but as an attempt to fix its budget and put commercial real estate back into private hands.

Instead, city officials have taken the path of least resistance, avoiding a fight with the powerful public employee unions that help keep them in office by raising taxes.

The council wanted civic peace; now it will have the political version of war – acrimony, intimidation and threats of panic in the streets. As soon as it bowed to state law last year and placed the citizen-backed repeal on the November ballot, the City Council kick-started a new propaganda campaign, predicting that repeal of the 2014 tax will unleash on their benighted city the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Local Protestors show up to question Council Member David Shawver's support of an increase in Sales Tax for Stanton

Local Protestors show up to question Council Member David Shawver’s support of an increase in Sales Tax for Stanton.

“That one of the poorest cities in Orange County has to pay the highest tax is totally unbelievable,” former Stanton Mayor Sal Sapien told the Register. “I am very hopeful the residents will prevail over the council.”

In their fight, residents will need more than hope. But hope is a start. Really, scrappiness would be better.

Will Swaim is vice president of communications for the California Policy Center. This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.

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