Stockton City Manager Harry Black stole a march on me and ran a piece in Internitv arguing that Measure A, the 10-year ¾-cent sales tax that’s about to expire, should be renewed.

Black, you wily devil.

“Without Measure A, non-public safety essential services would be absolutely decimated, impacting public works, community services, violence prevention, and economic development to mention just a few,” he wrote.

But there’s an ethical as well as financial side to renewing Measure A and paying the highest sales tax rate in the state to fund a city government that has not delivered on its promise.

I wouldn’t go so far to say the city pulled a bait and switch on taxpayers, but it played out that way, and the city has taken full, unapologetic advantage of it.

So let’s discuss whether renewing this tax makes us good citizens or suckers.

Measure A, devised to help Stockton exit its 2013-15 bankruptcy, was approved by voters in 2013. It kicked in in 2014. A largely poor populace further burdened itself to rectify the globally embarrassing incompetence of its public servants.

Officials, in turn, offered taxpayers a deal: bail us out of this mess, and two-thirds of the tax revenue will pay for 120 additional sworn police officers. Stockton’s force will grow from 365 to 485. The other one-third of Measure A revenue will go to city operations and debt.

That was the deal. Yet as of this week, Stockton’s police force stands not at 485 but 354. Not one of the 120 officers is on staff. On the contrary, the force is actually 11 cops below the 2013 level!

To understand what went sideways — how the city adapted to a police shortage and spent Measure A money elsewhere — it’s necessary to know the difference between restricted and general tax. A restricted tax, which requires two-thirds voter approval, can be spent only on the budget item specified on the ballot. A general tax, which requires only a simple majority, can be spent any way officials please.

“Crucially, Measure A is a general tax measure, not a special tax with a dedicated purpose,” Black wrote in his piece. “This flexibility was a strategic move, ensuring that Stockton could respond dynamically to its evolving needs.”

Black wasn’t here then, so he can be forgiven this revisionism. Designing Measure A as a general tax was not strategic; city polling determined that a restricted tax — which, remember, requires two-thirds voter approval — would not pass. A general tax had a chance.

But only because the city implicitly promised that it would hire 120 police. Remember, Measure A was accompanied on the ballot by Measure B, an “advisory measure” that asked voters if they wanted the money to be spent as mentioned before: two-thirds cops, one-third other.

They did. Measure A passed narrowly with 52.02% but B by 59.67%. B, though nonbinding, was a clear mandate to fund the cops.

“If they had not promised to spend two-thirds on police officers, does anybody believe voters would have voted for it?” asked Dean Andal, a leader of the 2013 anti-A campaign. “It barely passed.”

I don’t believe city officials plotted to dupe voters, but Andal does.

“Of course the city knew that at the time and lied to the voters,” he said. “They broke their promise.”

Or perhaps the police department, for reasons discussed ad nauseam, simply can’t attract the budgeted number of cops to Stockton. Whatever the case, scores of budgeted police positions remain vacant every year. The money budgeted for new cops goes unspent.

That is, until city officials seize the opportunity to spend the money elsewhere. None seem to lose sleep over failing to adhere to Measure B’s mandate.

Measure A money “has played a pivotal role in helping the city recover from its fiscal woes, revitalizing essential city services, and sparking vital conversations about public safety,” Black wrote.

Black’s position has merit. But many voters would say they didn’t shoulder a tax to spark “vital conversations” about police but to hire more of them. To make Stockton a less dangerous city.

It’s all very well if City Hall is funding a more robust bureaucracy or if it is overcoming its service insolvency but I imagine that few white-collar city employees hit the floor when a car backfires in their neighborhood. Residents of high-crime neighborhoods do, and they deserve police protection.

If City Hall’s denizens abhor the rancorous populism toxifying city politics, perhaps they should eschew lawyerly arguments about general taxes and view Measure A money as public safety equity to the city’s most vulnerable.

Steve Colangelo stands with an anti-Measure A sign. Opponents' slogan, “Don't Trust Them,” reflected their belief that the Stockton officials would not produce the promised 120 police. Time proved them right. (Photo courtesy of Dean Andal)

So. Can voters undo the tax? Should they? Will sunsetting Measure A “decimate” city government? Or undo a hoax?

To answer, it would help to know where Measure A money goes. Unfortunately, once the money is pulled from the police department budget it is thrown into the general fund (the principal financial source for such basic services as police and fire, parks, libraries, and general government operations) and can no longer be distinguished from other monies.

But we can sketch a few factoids.

Measure A has generated big bucks, around $45 million in 2022, or 16% to 18% of the city’s general fund, according to Black.

The general fund’s main costs are people costs — the salary and benefits of 1,790 funded positions — though the city has also embarked on a five-year, $1.3 billion Capital Improvement Plan to address Stockton’s woeful deferred maintenance backlog.

The costliest service is public safety. The police department gobbles 55% of the general fund, fire 20% — in total, 75% of the general fund.

Police in 2022 demanded a whopping 34% raise they claimed necessary to match other cities Stockton lagged in bankruptcy. Leaders abandoned post-bankruptcy austerity and gave them a hefty 18%. Measure A money played a part in that resolution. Without the raise police departures likely would have shrunk the force further still.

Or take pensions. City employee pensions are handled by the California Public Employee Retirement System, or CalPERS. For years CalPERS criminally hid true pension costs and racked up a huge unfunded liability, falling hundreds of millions short of promised pension money. Recently CalPERS reformed, but that made things worse in some ways. To pay the ginormous costs it papered over, CalPERS has to constantly hike its bill.

The city is paying $93.1 million to CalPERS in fiscal 2023-24 — twice the revenue generated by Measure A — and the bill is expected to go up for a decade. Already this year it is running Stockton into the red. It is expected to run the city deeper into the red until Peak Pension Monster around 2034.

These graphs of the City of Stockton's long-range budget projections show that the cost of public employee pensions, and other factors such as cyclical recessions, will drive the city deep into the red in years to come. To avoid another bankruptcy city officials have banked millions, including revenue from Measure A taxes: one reason they argue Measure A should be renewed. Source: City of Stockton

The costs could bankrupt Stockton again. To cope, the city created a Long-Range Fiscal Plan (L-RFP) that warily takes contingencies into account. And it poured $68 million into a pension trust, a savings account to pay for pension bills when revenue cannot. Measure A money plays a role here, too.

Without it, “Those years when we’re deficit spending would get much worse,” said Kimberly Trammel, Stockton’s CFO.

“So we would be looking at not only at the Marshall Plan (public safety) portion of Measure A being eliminated but also cuts to other departments,” Trammel said. “We are still working on what that really looks like.”

The gist is clear: fewer city services.

Other costs include the multi-million dollar cost overruns on the new City Hall buildings, perpetual cost of living adjustments for city employees, staff expansion, and inflation.

To those who still say to hell with measure A, let’s get the bad news out of the way: voters do not get a say at the ballot box, not in 2024, or ever. From here on out Stockton’s City Council decides. That’s a Measure A provision voters may have overlooked.

City Hall will host town halls on Measure A before the council votes. But if the public falls short of an ornery, loud, unified opposition to A’s renewal it’s likely the council will vote to renew.

Still there is a recourse. It’s almost too late to use it for 2024, but maybe not, and it could surely be done for 2026 elections: deploy Proposition 218.

Prop 218, as I explained in this column, amended the California Constitution to require voter approval for local government taxes. It allows voters to repeal taxes through the same process.

Proponents of repeal must gather signatures from only 5% of the number of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which in Stockton would be a piddling 8,000 signatures.

Form a credible taxpayer’s association; hire a tax attorney; submit the initiative measure; campaign.

“The argument would be, you didn’t keep your promises,” said Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

A simple majority repeals the tax.

Repeal is not the only option. Others:

· Reduce the tax by .5 cents.

· Reduce the tax by .25 cents and add ballot language splitting the tax revenue between a more realistic goal of adding 60 cops and funding operational expenses.

· Re-up it not for 10 years but five. If the city hasn’t delivered the promised cops by then, kill it.

· Change it to a restricted tax. Citizens assured the city would have to spend the tax revenue on more cops and nothing else may oblige with a two-thirds majority.

“I have little doubt that if the city can only spend the money on hiring police officers, they would find a way to hire police officers,” said Andal. “But right now, they have an incentive not to hire police officers.”

Measure A has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, but taxpayers do not have one single additional police officer to show for it. City leaders have legitimate justifications. They can show the money helped in other areas. But they have become complacent about breaking the compact with voters. Shaking them up with a tax revolt might be healthy.Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. His views do not represent those of Internitv’s management and staff. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: mfitzgeraldstockton@gmail.com

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1 Comment

  1. In depth explanation- excellent.
    ?: why are the employees and elected c grade students not accountable.
    Personnel issues that keep identities secret are are ridiculous.
    You town squares are good places for accountability.

    In particular what idiots gave all these police officers HUGE I come formulas for retirement.
    I still lived in Los Angeles when this was perpetrated.
    Those outsize pensions need to be eliminated.
    I don't know the mechanism to do it.
    Why does the local media at the time get away with tepid coverage at the time.
    Stockton is made up of losers and misfits.
    It's not going to change.
    If reporters want to get a name how about finding out whose financing and pulling the strings of our current mayor.
    The definition of loser.

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