Neither Moore nor Parsons responded to an invitation sent out several weeks ago by Gary Gilbert on behalf of a group known as the Friday Morning Breakfast Club, which meets weekly at Denny’s on Lone Tree Way to discuss issues affecting Antioch. Former Mayor Don Freitas, who moderated the forum, afterward expressed disappointment in Moore and Parsons’ absence.
“I’m very, very sad about the two that did not show,” he said. “Because personally if you’re an elected official or a candidate, you have an obligation to appear. You have an obligation to talk and have a dialogue with your community. I think it’s very sad that the two incumbents did not come forward and at least have a dialogue with 45 people from the community. And I think that the dialogue that we had was very good. And I’m very happy that the three challengers were here and went for an hour and a half worth of questions. It’s the way democracy should work.”
Perhaps the most notable difference between the challengers concerned the November ballot measure to increase Antioch’s sales tax rate by a half percent. The City Council unanimously voted to place the measure on the ballot in an effort to shore up the city’s budget deficit by bringing in an extra $4 million per year for the eight-year life of the tax increase. Simonsen and Agopian are opposed to the sales tax hike, which can be spent on any city service, while Harper supports it.
“I don’t like giving city councils a blank check with more tax money,” said Agopian, a real estate agent who served on the school board from 2004-08 and challenged County Supervisor Federal Glover in 2008. “That’s not where I am fundamentally. I have a problem with that. Because the way this tax measure is being presented, it’s being presented as if it’s targeted (for particular city services). But it can’t be targeted. Because if it was, you would need a two-thirds vote requirement for it to pass. So it’s being presented as a targeted tax, but in reality it’s not. And you have to be very concerned about what the current council or a new council would do with your tax money.
“I prefer to see taxes that are targeted to specific uses. The school bond election in ’08 is a good example. It passed because it was targeted to specific needs. And the voters saw those needs and passed that bond. I’m opposed to the sales tax because I think it will hurt retail. Reviving retail is one the two top priorities in this city in order to improve revenue. And we are going to be putting a lead weight on our retail component in this town by having that sales tax. So I am not in favor of it. But if it passes and I’m elected, I will make sure that it’s spent in a targeted way so it matches up with the priorities of the city.”
Harper, a Tracy police lieutenant who was appointed in January of 2009 to serve out the remaining school board term of the late Joyce Seelinger, is not a fan of raising taxes. But he’s even less enamored of the possibility that the city might be forced to declare bankruptcy if the sales tax hike fails – a warning originally raised by Mayor Jim Davis.
“I don’t agree with always going into the pockets of the taxpayers,” said Harper. “We are paying increased fees for garbage; we are paying Mello-Roos taxes for years; we are paying BART (taxes) for how long. I believe that bankruptcy for our city is not an option. The police department lost about 47 employees. The city is losing employees. We are deficit spending. So we are there. Going bankrupt is not an option.”
Harper does not support the other option that was considered for raising revenue: a property tax increase that would ensure that the money would be used only to provide more police. Council members rejected it in part because a poll showed that a property tax would fail to get the necessary two-thirds approval from residents, whereas a sales tax only requires majority support to pass.
“Only property owners pay property tax,” said Harper. “Renters don’t pay property tax. People that are using our facilities coming in for big soccer tournaments and using our police facilities, our fire facilities, they are not paying property tax. We have cut off the fat (in the city budget) – now we are cutting muscle. So we can’t continue to deficit spend. If your outgo is more than your income, then your upkeep is in for a downfall. So we are in for a downfall unless we do something.
“I don’t like going into the pocket of taxpayers, but (support the sales tax) as a last resort to get the city back on the right track. There is going to be an oversight committee. And I’m sure one of us will probably be on that oversight committee. It’s our job to make sure the money will be spent where we say it’s going to be spent. So I do support the tax increase as a last option. I don’t want to see Antioch in bankruptcy.”
Simonsen, who served on the council from 2000 until 2008 when he failed to win re-election to a third term, supports a property tax increase, but opposes the sales tax hike because the money won’t necessarily be used to provide more police officers, and the tax might not bring in the additional $4 million city officials are predicting. “When the state temporarily increased the sales tax by 1 percent for two years, the LAO (Legislative Analyst’s Office) projected it would draw in $8 billion in additional revenue to the state,” he said. “In the fiscal year that just closed, they pulled in only $1.4 billion. In other words, you’re dealing with a volatile type of revenue source in a sales tax.
“Had we gone with a parcel tax, there’s a finite number of parcels. You know that each parcel would be paying that same amount. There would be a steady steam of money that could be used. This is why I was very adamant about supporting a parcel tax that was going to be a constant source for a fixed period of time until we could get our revenues back up. There’s a direct nexus also between what my property is, my family’s safety is with the tax that I’m paying. With the sales tax, there’s not, there’s no guarantee. But if the voters should pass it, then I am going to make sure that all that additional revenue goes for public safety and code enforcement, which are the two top priorities.”