A few weeks ago, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to place a measure increasing the sales tax by a half cent on the November ballot. The first question to be asked is why.
In a post Proposition 13 world, Sacramento has seen fit to rectify the state’s budgetary morass by raiding the coffers of local municipalities and in Santa Monica’s case, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over the last few years with more to come. Sacramento has slashed additional tens of millions of dollars from our local school district forcing the layoffs of teachers and staff with many more cuts on the horizon.
Santa Monicans are blessed with and have become accustomed to a great quality of life, whether it’s our world-class beaches and well-maintained parks, cultural events like the Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Dance Series or classical musical offerings by the Santa Monica Symphony, and rapid response times when it comes to police, fire, and paramedics. We treat our seniors with dignity and assist the needy by helping Meals on Wheels. Santa Monica is a world-class city with its own water supply, bus system, and a great network of libraries. This quality of life is dependent upon the soundness of our general fund, which faces double digit structural deficits over the next several years. Our police department’s budget has already been reduced as have contributions to many agencies which have a direct bearing on how we live our lives. Even with the passage of this half cent use tax, budget cuts will still need to be made.
There is a companion Advisory Measure on the November ballot whereby the projected $12 million in revenues from this tax would be used exclusively for things like police and fire as well as our local schools. Our local school district cannot raise the sales tax, only our city can. These dedicated funds cannot be stolen by Sacramento; they are raised locally to be used solely locally. There is a reason why our city has an AAA bond rating and it is precisely because our city leaders have been wise stewards of the money entrusted to them. This bond rating reduces the cost of doing business in contradistinction to Sacramento’s status which has near junk bond rating.
I am a local businessman so the ROI (return on investment) is important to me. What return will we get from this modest investment? There is the obvious like the clean streets and good roads, and well kempt playing fields for our youth. There is the comfort that comes from knowing that I will get a quick response from our police when there is a threatening situation (and I can personally attest to this). Then there is the less obvious. Few people realize what a great impact our local schools have on our daily lives. Good schools truly do make for a great community: both our current police chief Tim Jackman and his predecessor, Jim Butts, are on record stating that if our kids are in school (especially in afterschool programs which may be eliminated) then they are not on the streets, thereby reducing crime; we get a better educated workforce; we have a healthier populace and higher real estate values. According to a recent RAND Corporation study, the higher the level of education the lower the incidence of heart disease and diabetes. RAND also found a $100,000 differential per parcel between Santa Monica and adjacent Los Angeles because of our great schools. Another fringe benefit of our great schools and one which draws people to our community is that because Santa Monica High School has a 98 percent graduation rate versus 63.8 percent for LAUSD and because it is ranked in the top 200 schools academically in the nation, parents don’t have to spend $25-$35,000 a year to put their children in private schools.
It’s been bandied about in the press lately by some that “everyone I speak to is against it.” First of all I question the accuracy of that statement, and secondly if one surrounds oneself with perennial naysayers the outcome is assured. With respect to the premise that people will shop elsewhere, for example at Costco in Venice, I for one already shop at Costco for bulk item grocery purchases, and the passage of this measure won’t affect my buying habits one iota (incidentally items like groceries and medicines are not taxed anyway). If I’m buying a $100 item am I really going to put up with the time, effort, inconvenience, and gas to drive to Westwood to save .50 cents when it will cost me more than that in gas?
Because Santa Monicans are thoughtful and intelligent, I firmly believe that they will see this measure for what it is, namely a way to protect the quality of our lives and maintain life as we know it. I would even go so far as to say that Santa Monicans could be encouraged to “Shop Locally” and would do so for the greater good and to help our local merchants.
Dr. Michael Gruning lives in Santa Monica.