Mayor Jim Davis warned that if the tax hike doesn’t pass, Antioch would join the City of Vallejo in bankruptcy. “It’s incumbent on us to provide public safety for this community, but also be fiscally responsible and keep it solvent,” he said. “If it does not pass, I think we will see the worst of both worlds, which is bankruptcy. Based on the (city’s fiscal) situation and tax rates, this is the only way to keep us afloat. This is just to keep us afloat for a year to break even.
“If it turned around in four, five or six years, we can go back to the people and rescind it. I don’t want to pay taxes; it affects me and my family and everyone I know. But it comes down to the time when we need to make a decision. If we miss the November ballot (the next opportunity) is two years away. The city will be well into bankruptcy by then.”
Councilman Brian Kalinowski warned that if the tax hike fails, the only alternative to balance next year’s budget, which faces a $4 million shortfall, is a massive layoff of police officers. “I’m hopeful the residents of the city of Antioch see the value in stopping the bleeding of this city,” he said. “Plan B is $4 million in cuts and pulling no punches: nearly 40 layoffs in the city, with a large number being sworn police officers. That is not a scare tactic; that’s a fact. That’s where the cuts are going to come from.”
A private poll, the results of which were disclosed only to city officials, determined that Antioch voters would support a half-cent sales tax increase but would reject a parcel tax and a utility tax, according to Kalinowski. He added that a sales tax is fairer than a parcel tax because all residents, not just those who own property, would contribute to keeping the city budget solvent.
But there will be strong opposition to the sales tax hike. Former councilman Ralph Hernandez plans to file a “vote no” argument in the ballot measure pamphlet. And Antioch Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Devi Lanphere told the council an online poll of business owners showed 56 percent in opposition to the sales tax, two-thirds of whom believe it would drive customers to other cities. “This is a remarkable (economic) downturn, different than anything since the Depression,” she said. “This is a regressive tax with the potential to destroy businesses. There’s a lack of belief that in eight years (the tax) would go away. There are costs to update sales tax software.”
Former councilman Allen Payton is also opposed, saying that city officials can do more to cut costs, such as shutting down Prewett Water Park for a year, saving $210,000. He pointed out that the sales tax hike comes on the heels of city officials raising water, sewer and trash rates, an increase in Bay Area bridge tolls and the state’s 1-percent sales tax hike last year.
“When is enough enough?” Payton asked. “This tax is going to make us less competitive. What we need is economic development. This is not going to do it. We are less friendly toward business (than other cities). There’s the Walmart (expansion) issue. The ECC Bank owner has been trying for 18 months to open up another branch on Lone Tree Way. That is not business friendly. This is not the solution.”
Hernandez and others argued that city officials could save a lot of money by cutting back salaries and benefits for city employees, particularly benefits such as pensions and retirement health care that are more generous than typically provided in the private sector.
But Councilman Reggie Moore, who heads an East Bay MUD employees union, took umbrage at that suggestion. “When I hear public employee bashing, it really troubles me,” he said. “Public employees are not overpaid, we are not over-benefited. We want to live out our lives with dignity and respect with a pension that allows us to make the bills. It’s unfortunate that the private sector has chosen to downsize wages and remove benefits.”
Moore defended spending city money to support recreation programs and animal services, saying they contribute to public health and safety and should be supported by residents. “The more I hear ‘Don’t open Prewett; shut down the parks,’ the more I become troubled over the community that I’ve grown to love over the last 20 years of living here. My wife and I pay way too much in taxes. But I don’t mind taxing myself to enhance my community. I don’t want it going to Washington or Sacramento. It’s my hope that you all feel that way. Because it’s our town, and if we love it we have to save it.”
It will cost the city about $13,000 to place the sales tax hike measure on the Nov. 2 ballot. The council’s action on Tuesday was the first reading of the ordinance. It will come back on July 27 for final approval.