Only one candidate in the Nov. 2 Manteca municipal election has come right out and said Measure M - the half cent sales tax for public safety - should be repealed.
“I’m in favor of repealing Measure ‘morphine’ M,” council hopeful Richard Behling said during Wednesday’s San Joaquin County League of Women’s Voters candidates’ forum conducted at the Civic Center.
Behling contends the city leaders should have looked for ways first to be more efficient and that they are essentially addicted to tax increases to address problems when they arise.
Behling is one of four council candidates seeking to fill two positions open on the council. The others are incumbents John Harris and Vince Hernandez as well as challenger Samuel Anderson who was not in attendance. The four mayoral candidates were also at the forum cosponsored by the Manteca Bulletin. They are incumbent Willie Weatherford, council member Debby Moorhead, retired senior municipal planner Ben Cantu, and former mayor Carlon Perry.
Measure M was approved by more than two thirds of the voters in 1996 to collect a half cent sales tax exclusively for public safety. The revenues are split 50-50 between police and fire service personnel with the caveat the percentage of the general fund committed to public safety can’t be decreased below the base year of support in 1996.
Dropping revenue, however, has forced the money committed from the general fund to public safety to fall but the percentage has stayed the same. Measure M is currently paying for 11 firefighters and 12 police officers.
Behling said he researched Measure M supporters that he said reads like a “Who’s Who” of those sitting on the city council.
“There was one lone dissenter – his name is Joe D’Angelis (the community activist and not the retired police officer). I have suspicion that many of his points were well made,” Behling said. “The city of Tracy is now considering a Measure E in a half-cent sales tax vote for local law enforcement. In 1996 the state of California increased sales taxes they collect generally by taxing for local law enforcement – sending it back to the county and to the cities.”
Behling said the question is that all these measures are to supplement the monies that are already being spent on law enforcement – not to supplant them.
“Unfortunately people lose that idea after a year or two Measure M becomes law enforcement and all the other money gets used for something else,” Behling charged. “I would be in favor of voting for a sunset clause for Measure M, take it down in stages and two or three years from now end Measure M.”
John Harris is against repealing Measure M.
“No (and) the reason I say that is that the tax was overwhelmingly approved by the voters in Manteca. It looked like the voters had a crystal ball two years ago and saw this economic disaster coming. To have it overturned, I would turn it back to the voters and have them vote on it. But at this time I wouldn’t do that.”
Cantu voiced mixed emotions on whether to support a repeal the sales tax initiative in support of police and fire responders in the community.
He said it was obviously a need, otherwise the city would not have raised the issue of Measure M and have gone through the process twice in order to convince the residents to approve it.
“My problem with the whole issue is that the problem was identified, the resource was approved, and then 12 police officers were laid off. I did not hear of any criminals getting laid off and crime did not drop as reading it in the newspaper. It might be good this week, not so good next week. I would leave it up to the residents – but before we do away with the increase, I think we need to look at what can we do with the resources the city council has left the department with and how we can replace those without the sales tax,” Cantu said.
Cantu continued saying the criminal element is not going to go away in the community, adding that the level of safety in Manteca is not going to get any better without those 12 officers. The sales tax need was approved because the residents saw the need and established a level of service which, he said, the city council should maintain.
Perry opened on the subject saying he finds it interesting that the City of Manteca went out and hired a consultant to come in and find out whether to call for a vote in support of a sales tax increase for police and fire.
“They did that, they come out in the community and found out what you the taxpayer wanted as far as police and fire. They geared the campaign around that and they got it passed with almost 70 percent of the vote. I’ll go back and I’ll sound like a broken record. I think if we had sat down as a city council, sit down and prioritize our spending, determine what level of service we want in each department – determine which is the most important.
“If it’s police, fund the police department – you don’t have to have a special tax,” he said. “We are prioritizing our government, determining what you the people want and we are providing that service at the full extent of providing that service,” Perry said.
The former mayor challenged the council to attempt to solve budgetary problems “in house” before asking for a new tax to solve a problem.
Weatherford acknowledged that the citizens of Manteca passed Measure M after the city had a citizens’ group study the need – city staff and council members were not allowed to participate in the process.
Weatherford, a former Manteca police chief, said the city has always staffed the police department and the fire department at the lowest levels in the county. He said the margin of error in staffing was always very slim.
“The citizens were the ones who decided additional fire and police were needed,” Weatherford said. “It was a godsend, and if it was to be repealed I agree with Councilman Harris that it should go to the citizens. The citizens are the ones who approved it – the city has no taxing authority. It has to be voted on by the public.”
Moorhead said she is in favor of the sales tax initiative, saying that she voted for it.
“I wasn’t on the council; I was just your average citizen,” Moorhead said. “I felt we needed to have added police and fire – yes, I voted for it, and as Willie said, it is up to the voters and I was one of them.”
Hernandez, speaking on the sales tax mandate, offered comparison of the sales tax revenues that are being collected for the city of Manteca.
He said that in 2002-2003 the city collected $6.6 million in sales tax monies. In 2008-2009 there were sales tax revenues amounting to $5.5 million, a drop of $1.5 million.
“Behold, Measure M, we add $3.7 million that Measure M brings in and the 2008-2009 sales tax revenue is now $9.2 million. Measure M has been a godsend to our public safety. Over 20 public safety officers had been hired and the money could only be used for public safety,” Hernandez said.
“If we give back Measure M, we would have such a drastic cut in public services that this discussion would be the top priority for all of us. What I want to say to the public is rest assured we are safe because our public safety officers, our police and our fire, are doing an outstanding job with what they have,” he noted.
Hernandez added that they are patrolling the streets and able to stay within the primary response time. Yes, there have been cuts, he said, but those are on the back side. People have been reassigned to make sure that the citizens are safe.
“We have SHARP volunteers and we have SAFE volunteers and we have people willing to step up and help out the community – all that taken into account makes us a better community,” he said.