When Votes Don't Add Up for Local Taxes

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Pointless ballyhoo and bloodletting always accompany tax policy in Sacramento, but cities once had a better record of showing residents the value of the taxes they pay. That may be changing as the long recession grinds on.

The failure last week of tax measures in Sierra Madre and Bradbury may be a further sign of voter skepticism. For struggling Los Angeles County cities, any sign that voters are weary is a problem.

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Between 2000 and 2009, cities around the state and in Los Angeles County were overwhelmingly successful in linking their tax measures to neighborhood quality-of-life benefits. Voters -- sometimes by large majorities -- approved new or higher utility user taxes, sales tax increases, and so-called "parcel taxes" that go on property tax rolls.

Statewide in 2009, three-fourths of tax and revenue bond measures were approved by voters, and 11 of 13 "majority vote" taxes passed (as did 21 of 27 special taxes requiring a supermajority of two-thirds of the ballots). In 2010 in Los Angeles County, voters approved tax increases in Santa Fe Springs, Santa Monica, and South El Monte. In Orange County, new utility user taxes were approved in Huntington Beach, La Palma, and Placentia.

But voters in 2010 also began to show new uncertainty. Utility tax measures failed in Bellflower, El Segundo, and Pomona. Carson rejected a one-cent local sales tax increase.

Last week's elections (04/10/12) point toward even more trouble. The decision to turn down a limited utility user tax in Bradbury -- an enclave of horse-oriented estates with just 1,000 residents -- may doom that city to bankruptcy and disincorporation, according to city officials.

Voters also turned down a utility tax increase in more middle-class Sierra Madre.

Voters do approve of taxing other people, however. New or increased hotel and motel room surcharges easily passed in Arcadia and Culver City.

Proposed tax increases -- mostly on other people -- are always popular. According to the Los Angeles Times, 64 percent of those surveyed support Governor Brown's ballot initiative what would increase the state sales taxes slightly and place a new surtax on higher incomes. But voters still don't like taxing themselves. A competing revenue proposal that would hike income taxes for nearly all California taxpayers was supported by just 32 percent of those surveyed.

Voters are likely to approve the governor's "tax the other guy" plan. But voter willingness seems to be wearing out when city governments try to finance neighborhood services with the expedient of utility user taxes.

The state's chaotic system of local government financing may be only a few election cycles away from terminal collapse.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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