Public seeking answers on sales tax ballot proposal

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How many police officers are usually on patrol? How is the city paying for pensions? How will Measure BB money be spent?

These are just a few of the questions residents have asked during recent informational meetings City of Seal Beach staff have held on Measure BB, the Nov. 6 ballot measure that would increase the sales tax in the city from 7.75 percent to 8.75 percent.

Another meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 29 at 6:00pm at Leisure World Clubhouse #3.

Finance Director Victoria Beatley, City Manager Jill Ingram and Interim Police Chief Joe Miller are just a few of the city officials that attended two recent meetings to answer questions about the ballot measure, the city’s budget and police department. A supporter of the “Yes on BB” campaign also spoke.

Here’s a brief look at some of the issues discussed.

Public Safety

Measure BB has been touted as a way to pay for, among other things, more police officers. It’s estimated the sales tax hike could deliver $5 million in new annual revenue to the city which is projected to have a more than $2 million deficit next fiscal year.

During a meeting at Leisure World on Oct. 3 and at the meeting at St. Anne’s Church in Old Town Oct. 16, residents spoke about safety in their neighborhood including police patrols, reckless drivers and thefts from cars. Between 25-40 people attended the meetings. (A Sun reporter did not attend the Oct. 9 meeting).

At Leisure World, which is a gated private community, home to one-third of Seal Beach’s population, residents inquired about having an officer designated to their area.

Chief Miller said he believes Measure BB funding could make that possible.

In fact, at the city’s Strategic Planning Meeting last month, assigning a police officer to Leisure World was one of three city goals leaders identified that are contingent on Measure BB passing.

The other two are: assigning a Community Policing Unit Team year-round to staff the Jack Haley substation at the Pier and expanding Community Policing teams to each of the five council districts.

At the Measure BB meeting in Old Town, resident Nancy Smith shared how neighbors had been using cameras to track how often police patrolled the alleys behind their homes.

She said in four months they saw none.

Smith wondered how many officers patrol regularly.

Chief Miller responded that the department always attempts to schedule four patrol officers and a watch commander, but often there are only three patrol officers and a watch commander working a shift.

That is something Miller wants to significantly increase by hiring possibly eight more officers, which he said could be paid for with Measure BB money.

Budget and pension problems

According to the city, revenues have not kept up with inflation as costs for pensions, insurance, the Orange County Fire Authority contract and other items rise.

During the budget adoption this year, city staff made cuts to services, raised fees and kept vacant positions unfilled but a $400,000 shortfall remained.

Beatley outlined some of the increasing costs at the Oct. 16 meeting including how pensions are getting more expensive partly because of changes by the California Public Employees Retirement System.

Two examples were that CalPERS extended the age for retirement and changed the amortization rate.

According to Beatley, the city’s pension costs for 2018-2019 is $3,227,000.

More than 70 percent of that is for public safety pensions. But, in response to a question from a resident at the Old Town meeting, Beatley noted that since 2014 public safety employees are paying 12 percent of their pension costs which is 9 percent their share and 3 percent of the employer’s share. Still, the cost to the city for pensions is expected to double by 2023, according to Beatley.

Transparency on spending

A resident at the Old Town meeting asked about how Measure BB money would be spent and expressed distrust with city government. Another person asked if it could be spent on Pier repairs.

If passed, Measure BB money would go into the city’s General Fund which means it could be spent on any services the fund pays for including public safety, services, pensions and salaries. It will be audited with the budget and any revenue generated would go into a separate account.

“I would anticipate that new expenditures will be brought to the City Council for action and that the staff report will specifically indicate that the expenditure is related to Measure BB,” Beatley wrote in an email. But she added that, on the other hand, some payments for “essential city services” may not be formally identified because they are considered routine.

Jim Brady, a spokesman for the pro-Measure BB campaign, was quick to respond to a question about mismanagement being part of what landed the city in a financial crisis. He likened the city’s situation to a sinking boat and asked, would you bail water or ask who made the holes?

“If there is mismanagement (which I highly doubt) I would rather make sure that the City stays afloat while we investigate management,” Brady wrote in a recent email.

What if Measure BB fails?

A resident asked what would happen if Measure BB fails. Beatley relayed that the city is working on that. The city created a goal at the Strategic Planning Meeting that reads: Determine a path forward if Measure BB does pass, and if it does not pass.

“We’re going to have more challenges than we have now,” Beatley said recently in response to the same question. “If this doesn’t pass, that same group that is going to talk about a path forward with more money is now going to have to talk about a path forward with less money.”

Other cities may face similar conversations. Eighteen other Southern California cities have sales tax measures on the November ballot including Santa Ana, Placentia, Garden Grove and Laguna Beach.