Late tonight the Westminster City Council voted 4 to 1 to place on the November ballot a 1% sales tax increase proposed by Councilmembers Margie Rice and Diana Carey.
Councilman Tyler Diep cast the lone dissenting vote, while expressing lack of trust in the current council majority ability to use additional revenue wisely, and challenging the many city employees in the audience to consider the option of “shared sacrifice” and reducing the structural deficit by giving back recent increases from contract negotiations.
Mayor Tri Ta said he opposed the sales tax hike, would not vote for it, then pivoted by saying that since he was Mayor of all the people he would vote to place it on the ballot – but only if the sales tax hike he claimed to oppose was amended to include a sunset provision and a few other modifications.
Councilman Sergio Contreras also said he opposed tax increases but would vote to put it on the ballot.
Rice and Carey both expressed their opposition to the sunset provision but agreed to it in order to get their sales tax increase plan on the ballot.
The council chambers were filled, as were the seats arranged on the lawn outside. The speakers were fairly evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the Rice/Cary sales tax increase, with the pro-tax hike speakers heavily comprised of city employees.
Opponents pointed to the negative impacts such a sales tax hike would have on city businesses, especially the city’s greatest generator of sales tax revenue – auto dealerships. Representatives from the city’s dealerships were clear a 1-cent sales tax hike would be devastating to their businesses – leading to lost sales, lost revenue and ultimately lost jobs.
At this point it is useful to explain that the proposed 1% transaction and use tax increase is different from the 8% on the books. A transaction and use tax isn’t levied on the point of sale, but according to where the vehicle is registered. A Westminster resident who bought a car in a different city with an 8% sales tax would still pay 9% – assuming they didn’t register their new car at a friend or relatives home in a city with a lower tax rate. Essentially, Westminster residents wouldn’t be able to escape that extra 1% tax ; it would follow them wherever they go.
That takes a good deal of explaining, and underscores the auto dealerships point that perception is reality: if car buyers think they going to pay more in Westminster, they’ll go elsewhere.
“If I am going to spend $30,000 to $50,000 om a car, an extra $500 would not make a difference to me,” claimed one pro-tax hike speaker. Another speaker pointed out that she was a distinct minority, citing how the prevalence of Internet-based comparison shopping leads customers to walk away from a purchase over $50.
“Right To Vote” Rhetorical Camouflage
Most tax hike proponents camouflaged their advocacy behind “right to vote” rhetoric. Speaker after speaker claimed the question before the council wasn’t the wisdom of a sales tax hike but whether or not to place it on the November ballot. Resident Roxanne Chou, for example, said if the council didn’t place it on the ballot then it would be “denying us the right to vote.”
It should be noted that not a single sales tax hike opponent demanded their “right to vote” on a proposal they oppose. On the other hand, the “right to vote” speakers spoke of their opposition to additional budget cuts and the need for more tax revenue. In reality, they want to vote for a higher sales tax, and their use of the “right to vote” fig leaf reveals their recognition that voters aren’t fond of tax increases.
One sales tax hike opponent pointed out to OC Daily that no one’s right to vote would be denied if the council chose not to place it on the ballot, noting the law gives citizens the right to collect signatures to place a tax increase on the ballot. If they believe so passionately in a tax increase, why don’t they put that passion to work qualifying it for the ballot? “But as another opponent noted wryly, “That would be hard.”
Throughout the evening, Rice and Carey interrupted or reproached sales tax opponents, prompting Mayor Tri Ta to remind them their job during the public comment period was to listen to the public.
The rationalizations for placing the tax hike offered by the four councilmembers exhibited a range of CYA rhetoric and tortured logic.
Mayor Tri Ta proclaimed that as mayor of “all the people” he would place the tax increase on the ballot a tax increase demanded by maybe .02% of the city’s population – many of whom are city employees — and then proceeded to amend the proposal without asking the permission of “the people” in whose name he claimed to be acting.
“I will only vote to put it on the ballot with these restrictions because I respect the people,” said Ta. “That is my stand.”
In addition to the 4-6 year sunset – from which the 4-year option was quickly dropped – Ta also demanded that 50% of new revenues go to the budget reserve. City Attorney Richard Jones informed Ta that doing so would change it from a general tax to a special tax and raising the voter approval threshold to 2/3. Since that would make it impossible to pass, that modification was dropped – to be taken up later as “clean up” language.
Councilman Sergio Contreras let everyone know that “My opinion doesn’t really matter on this issue. Yours does. That is why I am voting to put this on the ballot.” He probably didn’t intend to indict his general ability to make decisions as the people’s elected representative, but that is what he did.
Rice claimed, contrary to her words and actions: “I personally have not decided how I’m going to vote.” It’s doubtful anyone in the room, whether tax hike opponent or proponent, believed that one.
Rice also echoed the false premise of tax hike proponents when she proclaimed, “It’s your right to vote and it’s not my right to take it away from you.” A good applause line, just intellectually dishonest.
Carey spoke for a very, very long time, making statements like this gem intended as praise for a local Honda dealer: “I never bothered to check the price when I went in to buy a second car.” Probably not what Westminster voters want to hear when Carey is asking them to approve a tax hike and promising to be a good steward of their monies.
Carey also claimed that Westminster’s “structural deficit is caused by our low property tax.” Apparently, the fact that city spending has been growing at three times the rate of city revenues has nothing to do with it.
The activist Democrat also explained her opposition to any sunset provision by stating, “I don’t want to have hired more [city employees] and then have the sales tax end, and we’d be right back where we started.” In other words, if the sales tax hike passes, Carey focus will not be re-structuring or re-inventing government, but on using new tax revenues to grow the city payroll.