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Measure S: Lemon Grove Torn Over Sales Tax Initiative

The Lemon Grove sign is pictured, Jan. 21, 2020.

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: The Lemon Grove sign is pictured, Jan. 21, 2020.

Listen to this story by Maya Trabulsi.

The city of Lemon Grove has been financially struggling for years, with a projected deficit of $400,000 by the end of this fiscal year. A group of residents believes the only way to keep the city out of trouble is to raise the sales tax.

The group behind "Save Lemon Grove—Yes on S" wants to boost the sales tax on transactions in the city, from 7.75% to 8.5%. They petitioned and gathered enough signatures to qualify for the March ballot.

“The idea of not being a city, woke people up,” said George Gastil, former Lemon Grove councilman and one of the petitioners of the initiative. “People believe in Lemon Grove and they see their city under threat. That made the response so much stronger.”

He says Lemon Grove’s financial situation is bad enough that it may have to disincorporate as a city. And the threat of that has motivated residents to support the measure.

Video by Roland Lizarondo

The new tax money, he said, will mostly pay for public safety, as fire and sheriff’s contracts go up each year.

“We also could be improving our parks. We can be improving our streets and we can be promoting economic development. This is going to benefit businesses in the long run because businesses benefit from a clean city, from a safe city, from a city where people feel confident and people want to spend time. And a stronger city makes for a stronger business sector,” Gastil said.

Further, Gastil said the measure goes beyond sales taxes in stores. He said there will also be more effective collection of online sales, the combination of which would raise about $2.9 million for the city.

Photo by Maya Trabulsi

Former Lemon Grove City Councilwoman, Mary England, visits The Grove Grinder restaurant in Lemon Grove on January 21, 2020.

Mary England served on the Lemon Grove City Council for three terms and said the majority of the people who signed the petition weren’t told the whole story.

“We're not saying we're against tax. We're not against it. We're not trying to shut the city down. But a lifetime tax in this city is wrong for a lot of reasons,” England said.

England currently lives in La Mesa, but still owns property in Lemon Grove where her family moved to in 1963. She says if the measure had a sunset clause that eventually expired, she may be able to support it.

“So the sales tax is proposed right now for life, cradle to grave, we believe is totally wrong. A lifetime tax for this small community is ridiculous. We think it's a lazy way to fix a problem,” England said.

Instead, England suggests there are other ways to decrease the deficit, like working with businesses to make them more successful, possibly selling parcels of city land, and doing away with full-time city positions, like assistant city manager and human resources.

“But to give government your money for the rest of your days, and your family, and your grandchildren, and your unborn great grandchildren is not palatable,” England said.

“I know that the message was help save Lemon Grove. The message never was, ‘Oh, by the way, help save Lemon Grove with this lifetime tax,’ because I asked people who signed it. Did they tell you it is a lifetime tax? They said ‘no’.”

Gastil responded to this. He said that calling Measure S a lifetime tax is misleading.

"The measure would be no more permanent than any other policy the voters might approve," he said. "If the voters ever feel they don't want this tax, they can get rid of it just as easily as they can pass it in the first place."

England, for her part, responded to the threat of disincorporation, calling it a scare tactic. She said supporters of Measure S have mischaracterized what would be a very lengthy, multi-step process.

“If it even went down that road of disincorporation, the voters of Lemon Grove have to vote on it, and that's not being told to them either,” she said. “It's saying if this sales tax doesn't happen, the city's in jeopardy and they'll be governed by the county of San Diego.”

Measure S will be on the March ballot, but it is subject to a lawsuit. Opponents argue Measure S should not be validated, even if voters approve it, because members of the committee behind Measure S did not correctly circulate the petition. A court hearing is scheduled for February 21.

Correction: An earlier version of this story called the group, in favor of Measure S, “Vote Yes for the Lemon Grove Tax." The group has changed their name to "Save Lemon Grove—Yes on S."

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Maya Trabulsi
KPBS Evening Edition Anchor

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI'm the news anchor for Evening Edition, which airs live at 5 p.m. on weekdays. I also produce stories about our community, from stories that are obscure in nature to breaking news.

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