Retorts: The clock is running out

CLOCK TOWER at Westminster Civic Center (OC Tribune photo).

The last time an Orange County city tried something this reckless, it was almost never heard from again.

Back in 1911 the residents of a community then called Benedict incorporated as the City of Stanton to foil Anaheim’s plans to use their area as a sewer farm.

However, in order to attract county-financed roads – and not have to pay for it themselves – the original Stanton (all 16 square miles) – disincorporated in 1924. It remained without local government until a much smaller Stanton (around three square miles) was revived in 1956.

Westminster is a neighbor of Stanton, and is starting to flirt with a similar fate. On Monday, the city council essentially ignored dire reports of looming financial disaster, bankruptcy and potential disincorporation by taking no action to renew Measure SS, a one-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2016.

Battered by the Great Recession and the state’s clawback of redevelopment money, Westminster indulged in waves of layoffs, firing dozens of employees until it looked like there would be just two choices: shutter City Hall (and the city) or raise taxes.

Voters approved Measure SS, but with a six-year sunset clause. It was a reprieve, not a solution. Now the tax is about to expire, and so might Westminster.

At the meeting, the council was told that the city would be $10.5 million in the red for the 2022-23 fiscal year, with the difference plugged by reserves. By 2024-25 the city would be totally out of money, unless Measure SS was renewed.

How to cope? Well, you could gut the police department and public works and have just enough city workers to run a community like Mayberry. Or maybe not even enough to do that.

This was a “firebell in the night,” to borrow from Thomas Jefferson. But the city council decided essentially to turn over and catch a nap.

Councilmember Kimberly Ho, who literally wept once over the prospect of massive layoffs, suggested that the city try to raise money some other way.

“I come up some really excellent ideas under pressure,” she said.

Well, that could be true and the city really is under pressure. The tax runs out on Dec. 31 and the deadline to get a measure on the November ballot is Aug. 12.

But to assume that some “really excellent” new venture

could instantly generate tens of millions of dollars practically overnight is, well, not excellent planning.

If Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg were to jointly announce next week plans to build a fifty-bazillion dollar project in Westminster, it would still be years and years before any revenue would flow to city coffers.

Stanton – for another example – has been working on establishing a large cannabis enterprise for years and it’s still not up and running.

Where does that leave this city of 90,000 people? Becoming an unincorporated area like Midway City? Become the tail of four cities and get carved up by Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Stanton? Limp along as the shell of its former self, as crime spikes and property values slump?

I realize that tax increases are unpopular, and especially fatal for candidates from One Of The Two Major Parties. “Live within your means,” is the mantra.

But what parent wouldn’t take another job to raise enough money to buy medicine for his or her ailing child?  Westminster, financially, is quite ill. Let’s just hope those in charge will come to their senses before the patient dies.

Jim Tortolano’s “Retorts” appears – usually – on alternate weeks.


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