By Ted AYALA
A tax measure that was passed by an overwhelming two-thirds majority of voters in 2009 may find itself a target in the forthcoming special election.
Three Glendale area residents – William Taliaferro, Kenneth Landon, and Jon Voors – submitted to the office of the Glendale City Clerk earlier this month a notice stating their intention to circulate a petition aimed at repealing Measure UTT. The notice was ratified by the city clerk’s office on Jan. 20.
Measure UTT was a ballot initiative proposed to residents by the Glendale City Council in the April 2009 election. It updated a utility users tax (UUT) on telephone services that was established in 1969. The update reduced the UUT rate from 7% to 6.5%, while maintaining exemptions for low-income senior and disabled residents. That included cellular phones. During the decade preceding the UUT update, the usage skyrocketed, while landline use dropped correspondingly.
According to a statement in support of the measure, the UUT update also improved accountability by way of an annual independent audit that would ensure that revenues were being properly collected and spent.
“By treating all users of similar communications services the same, regardless of technology, it is projected that Measure U will produce approximately the same amount of tax revenue using a lower tax percentage spread across all users of telecommunication services,” read the statement, which was signed by Glendale Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, former Police Chief Randy Adams, former Councilmember John Drayman, and former City Manager Jim Starbird.
Arguments against the measure drafted by members of the Glendale Vanguardians group said that the measure amounted to a general tax and that would allocate revenue for paying the salaries of city staff, not for the funding of essential services.
Ultimately, Measure UUT passed with an overwhelming majority – with 66.6% of voters in favor, meeting the two-thirds threshold required by the city to enact new taxes.
Other utilities, such as water and gas, were not affected by the measure.
In the proposed measure drafted by Taliaferro, Landon, and Voors, Measure UUT would not only be repealed, but would also affect the city’s ability to collect similar taxes on other utilities.
“Thus, the measure would prohibit the imposition or collection of previously authorized taxes on other utility services,” their notice reads.
Landon cited voter misinformation among the chief reasons of initiating the repeal.
“What people saw was that the UUT would be reduced,” he said. “Not that the city would be dropping the UUT rate and then apply it on a broader scale to include cellphones and other services that previously didn’t exist.
“I’m not saying [that the city] deliberately [presented the ballot initiative] that way. But had voters been more informed, they likely may not have voted for it.”
He also criticized what he views as misuse of the funds allocated by the UUT.
“Of all the revenue collected, over $300 million from 2002 to 2013, none of the revenue went back to the utilities,” added Landon. “If the monies had been given back to the utilities it would have dramatically decreased the rate that they would collect. Instead, it usually goes to the general fund, so there’s no specific obligation. The funds are most likely going to go into paying for overtime, salaries, pensions and unfunded debt.”
Landon also criticized the increase in the city’s budget despite a drop in its population.
If the petition manages to make it on the ballot and win, Landon said it would encourage the city to “live within its means.”
“Costs are out of control,” he said. “[Should] this [repeal pass], it would force the city to be more prudent with the revenue they receive.”
City Manager Scott Ochoa contested Landon’s views, saying that he feels supporters of the repeal are confused about the purpose of the UUT.
“The UUT is designated as a general fund resource, so it’s there to specifically fund general fund business,” he said. “The whole point of the general fund is to support our city’s services, which are provided by people. Our target is 75% for salaries. Right now it’s 78%, which we have managed to lower from 83% a few years back. We are very conscious about cost containment. We have been living within our means and making those tough cuts.”
Ochoa also took issue with the petition supporters pointing to the increase in budget as a sign of out-of-control spending at City Hall.
“A population drop doesn’t mean that we can shirk our responsibility to maintain the city’s infrastructure,” he said. “Streets, utilities, sewer systems, so on – all these still need upkeep. We can’t just defund them and let them fall apart.”
Landon, though, sees the UUT, as well as the possibility of a revenue-generating ballot measure posed to voters in the next election, as an indication that the city is out of touch with its voters.
“This current City Council thinks everyone is apathetic, uninformed and that they think they can do whatever they want,” he said.
Ochoa disagreed citing the overwhelming passage of Measure UUT in 2009 and a recent survey conducted by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government as proof to the contrary.
“What [the group petitioning for the repeal] wants is to keep bringing this issue before the voters again and again until they finally agree with them,” he remarked. “That’s not the way to run government. But I have every confidence that this community will want to continue funding the level of support for the services we provide.”
To that, Tom Lorenz, City of Glendale spokesperson, mentioned a recent study by Movoto Real Estate, an online brokerage site, designating Glendale as the safest mid-size city in the United States as further proof that City Hall enjoys the support of residents.
“The best residential mid-sized community in the entire country, number 1, was Glendale,” he said. “That is the telltale sign of what this city provides to its community and it is a direct reflection of what the community receives.”
Landon and his partners, meanwhile, are still trying to get broader visibility for their petition.
“There hasn’t been a lot of attention yet,” he said. “We’re still in the beginning stages.”