By Katta Hules
The debate on repealing the Utility User’s Tax (UUT) is coming to a head. Measure A is opposed by city workers, especially the Fire and Police Departments who have been vocal about how the measure will be a threat to public safety.
Ballotpedia, the online encyclopedia of American politics defines a UUT as “taxes that cities and counties … impose on the consumption of certain utility services.” In Arcadia, this goes into the general fund for infrastructure and city services including police, firefighting, and libraries.
Measure A is pushed by the California Tax Limitation Committee (CTLC), backed by TeaPAC, part of the Tea Party’s Tax Revolt, says Arcadia Firefighters Association President Brian Ursettie. He quotes the CTLC site’s mission statement: “[t]he only way to reduce the Union influence in California politics is to reduce their cash flow by voting out the taxes that fund their very existence. Their power will diminish in direct proportion to the money.” It saddens Ursettie the measure is being manipulated for a statewide goal, because “it’s the people of Arcadia that will suffer.”
Sterling Contreras, Pasadena TeaPAC office manager says Measure A will make the city spend responsibly. “They are trying to say it would be absolutely devastating to go without it, when their revenues have gone up and they just keep spending more and more money … that’s not being responsible.” He points out the city manager makes more than the Joint Chief of Staff for the US military. According to watchdog group Transparent California, in 2014, City Manager Dominic Lazzaretto earned $206,725.14 in salary and $290,362.91 total with benefits. In 2014, the Joint Chief of Staff earned $253,772.40 not including additional allowances, according to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Contreras calls it, “the City of Bell happening all over again.”
Ursettie says Arcadia salaries are midrange compared to surrounding cities. Pay must be competitive, he says, referring to Sierra Madre’s recent staffing shortage as a cautionary tale.
April Verlato, Downtown Arcadia president and city council candidate, agrees. Though, she says, there are “problems that should be addressed with the retirement benefits.”
Verlato calls the measure “too drastic of a cut.” During the 2008 recession, she says, the financial surplus from the UUT allowed Arcadia to keep its services, instead of cutting them as other cities had to. Verleto maintains reducing services is the only way the city could balance losing the UUT.
The UUT repeal will “result in longer response times for … emergencies,” according to Keep Arcadia Safe’s website. The anti-Measure A group is run by the Arcadia Police Officers Association and the Arcadia Firefighters Association. Contreras maintains this is a scare tactic and if “instead of [the city officials] actually having reasonable salaries with overtime, they would rather cut services, then that would be on them.”
Proponent and cosigner of the measure, Larry Papp spent around “200 hours and 30 trips to the city clerk’s office” researching the UUT and city salaries. He points out in 2009 the California Citizen’s Compensation Commission (CCCC) cut salaries and benefits by 18 percent (CCCC is a seven-member committee appointed by the governor to decide state officials’ salaries and benefits). “Now what did Arcadia do? They raised the salaries and benefits of our city employees.” The Arcadia PD spent $15.7 million in the 2010-11 fiscal year, Papp says, but in the 2014-15 fiscal year had a budget of $19.3 million with two fewer officers. “Where is the money going? Is it going to put more cops on the street to protect the people? Heavens no. It’s going to fatten the salaries and the benefits … of the department.” Papp still loves the police and firefighters, “but that’s not the point.”
It should be noted, in 2011, the police were under budget by $967,307, and by $825,562 in 2015, according to the city’s annual reports.
Papp says Arcadia “sits on a $36.9 million surplus.” Verlato disputes this, saying $20 million of the reserve is in the water fund, only usable for water services such as sewer repairs. “I don’t think that we have the reserves that Mr. Papp believes we have … [to] compensate for that $7 million that he’s proposing that we don’t need,” Verlato says, “we would end up using the reserves that we’ve built back up since 2013,” leaving Arcadia without enough money. “[W]hat are we going to be doing to generate more revenue if we don’t have the UUT?”
Votes can be cast in Arcadia’s entirely mail-in election. Ballots must be postmarked by April 12 and received by April 15.