STANTON, Calif. – It was a Wednesday afternoon in early March, a more innocent time in Stanton, California. Gathered in the community center of the Plaza Pine Estates, we were like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they ate the apple that gave them a second-grader’s sense of good and evil.
Plaza Pine Estates is a well-manicured mobile home park so close to Beach Boulevard – the 26-mile state highway that functions as an asphalt riverbed moving automobiles between the foothills of inland Southern California and sprawling Huntington Beach State Park – that you can hear the dopplering traffic inside the community center.
That’s where Councilman David Shawver led a parade of public officials, including a county firefighter and two sheriff’s deputies, in a celebration of Stanton’s voter-approved hike in the city’s sales tax – from 8 to 9 percent, the highest in Orange County.
The so-called Talk with the Block series – there’ve been three-dozen so far, an official said – are supposed to be about community concerns. But at this one, at least, the communication was mostly one-way – what your computer scientists might describe as less input than output.
Speaker after speaker depicted that increase in the sales tax as the penny-thin line between civilization and chaos. And, in the end, the tax isn’t an ordinary tax, they said, but a “shared tax” – by which they apparently mean that the tax will hit residents as well as humans they called “outsiders.”
“The penny sales tax is a shared tax, a tax from people who drive through our community,” said Shawver. “They drive up and down Beach Boulevard, stop to get gas, and we get one penny. One penny! And thanks to that one little penny, we’ve been able to restore critical public safety assets.”
It also hits anyone who shops in Stanton, of course, though not (the officials stayed carefully on message) grocery and pharmaceuticals shoppers.
But it’s all for a good cause, Shawver said: public safety.
Stanton has a well-earned reputation for violence – it’s among the toughest towns in a county more famous for cat-fights among wealthy housewives than gunfights, gangs and prostitution.
“I’m not going to fool you,” said Shawver, a council veteran. “Public safety is expensive, but I am concerned with maintaining the level of service that you demand.”
Public safety in Stanton is indeed expensive – and getting pricier. This year, the city will pay an additional $1.1 million for public-safety, most of that the escalating cost of pay and benefits for its $220,000-per-year cops and firefighters. Those pay packages were negotiated by the powerful sheriffs and firefighters unions – the same unions that backed Shawver’s 2014 sales tax hike.
If it weren’t for a few lousy public investments over the last several decades, the city might be able to pay its sheriffs and firefighters even at that stratospheric level. But Shawver was among those on the city council who approved Stanton’s play in Vegas-style redevelopment schemes until Gov. Jerry Brown killed them in 2011. Stanton, Orange County’s poorest city, now pays millions on bonds to hold property it purchased while betting on its steady appreciation. Interest payments this year alone: $2,323,887. Unless the city refinances that debt, it’ll pay $42 million in interest by 2040.
And there’s bad news just ahead for Shawver and other Stanton officials. Residents qualified a tax repeal for the November ballot; if successful, that’ll put a ding in the city’s income statement. So will the steady rise in the cost of cops and firefighters: Thanks to more rigorous accounting (and the reporting of the Orange County Register’s Teri Sforza), Orange Countians recently learned for the first time that the Fire Authority is actually running in the red, with deficits – especially for retirement pay and other health benefits – exceeding assets by $169 million for the fiscal year that ended in June.
That has other cities so enraged, they’re talking about leaving the authority and even privatizing firefighting.
But not Shawver. When it comes to the county’s sheriffs and firefighters, “There are no finer government agencies,” he asserted.
We might have believed that in a more innocent time, before the Talk With the Block. But later that night, we discovered that Shawver, a 28-year veteran of Stanton’s redevelopment fiascos, has served for 21 years as his city’s representative on the board of the Orange County Fire Authority.