If the people of Westminster had but one face, they might have buried it in their hands watching Monday’s special meeting of the city council.
In a performance that drew a big black line under the term “dysfunctional,” the council spent two hours and more showing just what’s been wrong with this city’s government not just for years, but decades.
But enough hand-wringing. Let’s cut to the chase. Westminster, a city of nearly 100,000 people, with a history dating back 150 years, is close to being broke and if no real leaders step up, it might just eventually join Orange County communities like McPherson, Olive and Smeltzer which couldn’t meet the challenges of their times.
The proximate cause of all this crepe-hanging is the inability of the council to address an impending disaster. Not too long ago, the city had to lay off a third of its work force as it recoiled from the effects of the Great Recession and a crippled tax base.
Catastrophe was fended off for a while when voters approved a 1-cent sales tax hike with a six-year term that will expire in 2022. But even with that boost, Westminster has been called upon to plug the budget with raids on reserves. The coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation worse.
Called into a special meeting at 1 p.m. on Monday – with scant public notification – the council was given a last-minute chance to rescue the city from a sea of red ink. On the agenda was the placing on the Nov. 3 ballot an extension of 2016’s Measure SS tax increase, enhanced to 1.5 cents and with no “sunset” clause.
Interim City Manager Sherry Johnson pointed out that the deadline for putting the tax matter before voters was almost past, and that if action weren’t taken, the city would face the eventual prospect of massive layoffs and potential bankruptcy.
But none of that moved the council members. Not one member said a word. Mayor Tri Ta repeatedly asked if anyone had a comment or wanted to make a motion. Silence. He was seconds away from adjourning the meeting with no action and almost no speech.
Councilmember Kimberly Ho finally spoke up, saying through tears “I don’t want to see any more layoffs.” After some back-and-forth and too many questions, the final decision was whether to ask voters to simply keep the 1-cent levy without a sunset.
The council was warned that even that might not answer the financial challenges, which are potentially worsening by the unknown path of the COVID-19 health crisis.
Even though the council was not being asked to approve a tax, but instead to allow the public the choice on whether to do so, forthright action was impossible. A four-fifths vote was needed, and with Ta abstaining and Councilmember Tai Do voting no, the last best chance to steer the municipal ship of state away from the rocks passed fast and quiet.
It’s tough to determine whether this sorry outcome came from political fears or knee-jerk reaction to the very word “tax” or both, but it represents the latest in a series of blows from Westminster leadership and the outside world.
- After Westminster Mall opened in 1974, some councilmembers were so confident that the sales tax revenue would float the city to eternal prosperity, they arranged to lower the local property tax rates to among the lowest in the state. It can now only be changed by the State of California.
- In 1978 California voters approved Proposition 13, which froze such rates, leaving Westminster at a permanent disadvantage if sales tax revenue slumped.
- The Great Recession of 2008 (and onward) and the downward trajectory of the aging Mall led to massive city layoffs. The possibility of ending the city police force was raised. An immediate implosion was staved off by Measure SS, but the six-year term of the tax just kicked the can down the road. Even if the city is able to revive SS (or its successor) in 2022, the revenue wouldn’t start to flow until April of 2023. Economists are predicting that the national economy won’t be revived fully for two or three more years, even if the pandemic were reined in relatively soon.
There may be a solution out there, but with this outcome, maybe Kimberly Ho had the right idea. Just bury your face in your hands and cry.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on Wednesdays.