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Chula Vista Voters Approve Sales Tax Bump To Fund Public Safety

Chula Vista's city hall is shown on May 2, 2018.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: Chula Vista's city hall is shown on May 2, 2018.

UPDATE: 7:00 a.m., June 6, 2018

With all precincts reporting, Chula Vista's sales tax increase appears headed to victory. Just under 52.8 percent of voters said yes on Measure A, while 47.2 percent voted no.

UPDATE: 11:43 p.m., June 5, 2018

With 32% of precincts reporting, 54.82 percent of the votes are in favor of Measure A and 45.18 percent against.

Original story

Chula Vista voters will be asked this June to put more trust in their city government.

Two years after voters approved Measure P, a 10-year half-cent sales tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements, city leaders are returning with Measure A, a request for another half-cent sales tax increase to hire more police and fire personnel.

City leaders argue the money is badly needed, but opponents say there's no guarantee it will actually be spent on public safety because the money would go into the city's general fund.

With Measure A, Chula Vista is facing a conundrum common among California cities. By state law, if governments say a tax increase will go to a specific purpose, they need two-thirds voter approval. To avoid that, lawmakers can instead say the money will go to the general fund, but then opponents can argue there is no guarantee how the money will be spent.

Mike Diaz, a former firefighter and current Chula Vista city councilman who supports the measure, said there are ways to ensure the money is spent properly — for example, an oversight committee like one that was formed to monitor Measure P spending.

"And at the end of the day, every four years, the citizens will have the ability to say, you took care of our money and we're going to reward you, maybe with another term, or we're going to get you out of office for spending that money a different way," he said.

Diaz said while he was confident Measure A could have passed with a two-thirds vote, he felt it was too important to risk it. Last October, the city did a survey that found 62 percent of voters would support the measure.

Diaz said the measure is badly needed to address a shortage of police, firefighters and 911 dispatchers.

"Year after year after year we're not meeting response times," he said. "When someone dials 911, the expectation is that someone is going to show up and take care of the call, and we're not doing that right now."

It took Chula Vista police and fire, on average, 6 minutes and 31 seconds to respond to emergency 911 calls in fiscal year 2016, according to a city report.

That's 31 seconds above Chula Vista's goal of responding to all emergency calls within 6 minutes, according to a city report. In San Diego, the average was 7 minutes.

Diaz said to meet the goal, both police and fire need more staff. While Chula Vista's population has increased to 267,000 people, its police force shrunk by 11 percent since before the recession in 2008, according to the city report.

Chula Vista's police department has the lowest ratio of police officers to residents in San Diego County, according to a SANDAG report.

"They're at .8 police officers per thousand," Diaz said. "The regional average is 1.29 police officers per thousand. All we want to do is tie second to last. We're not asking for the world, we're not asking for a Cadillac plan."

Measure A would raise $17 million a year with the goal of hiring 79 new police officers, dispatchers, firefighters, paramedics and other public safety personnel.

But Russ Hall, the head of the opposition to Measure A, said while funding police and fire sounds good, he has a problem with the fact that the sales tax actually goes into the city's general fund.

"It's a marketing tool," he said. "So now you've got this great big pot of money. If something else comes up, then that money can be taken out and used for other purposes."

Hall said it should be no problem getting 66 percent of voters to approve a sales tax specifically dedicated to public safety funding.

"Police and fire are very popular," he said. "It's mom, apple pie, Chevrolet, police and fire."

Hall said he would even vote for the measure if there were safeguards to ensure it went to public safety. But first, the city would have to show it was fiscally responsible.

"Do everything you can before you go to the tax," he said. "And then if you have to, the city comes back to the voters and says, you know what, we have tried everything, and we still have these costs that we can't contain. Then you can go back to the taxpayers in good conscience and say, you know what, we need a little help."

Now at 8.25 percent, Chula Vista already has the third-highest sales tax in the county, below National City at 8.75 percent and La Mesa at 8.5 percent. San Diego's sales tax is 7.75 percent.

Hall also questions donors to the "Yes on Measure A" campaign. It has collected more than $100,000 total from Chula Vista police and fire unions and groups from outside the city, including Sycuan Band of The Kumeyaay Nation, Del Mar-based Chesnut Properties, LLC and Newport Beach-based Baldwin & Sons, LLC, according to the city clerk.

Diaz said outside developers have an interest in the measure because if they build in Chula Vista, they want to ensure their properties will be safe.

If Measure A passes, its sales tax increase would remain in effect until another ballot measure removes it.

Two years after voters approved Measure P, a 10-year half-cent sales tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements, city leaders are returning with a request for another half-cent sales tax increase to hire more police and fire personnel.

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