File photo

Measure H may present the best of both worlds to Santa Monica voters: a sales tax to support homelessness that they don’t have to pay for (at least, not for now and not in their own city).

Los Angeles County will ask voters to approve a quarter percent sales tax in the March 7 election. The tax would be in place for 10 years and the money will be used to prevent and fight homelessness within county borders.

As county residents, Santa Monicans can vote for or against the measure but because voters already approved a pair of sales tax measures last year, the new increase would not be collected inside city limits.

Santa Monica’s sales tax is currently at 9.25 percent. That will rise to 9.75 percent in April due to approval of Measure GSH last year that will fund local affordable housing and schools. In 2016, countywide voters also approved Measure M to fund parks. That tax will raise the local sales tax rate to 10.25 percent starting in July.

With that increase, Santa Monica sales tax will have hit a ceiling. A state law caps local sales tax rate at no more than 2 percent above the state’s base rate (7.25 percent) unless a jurisdiction receives a special legislative exemption. The County of Los Angeles has an exemption to allow a three percent increase.

Measure H contains language directing the county to enter a contract with the California State Board of Equalization to administer the tax. The measure requires the contract to account for local jurisdictions that have already reached their 10.25 percent limit.

That means if voters here help pass Measure H, a County quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless services, it won’t affect their pocketbooks unless new legislative action is taken to raise the state mandated cap. In that event, Santa Monica sales tax could reach a whole new level.

Even without money from Santa Monica sales, the county expects the tax to raise $355 million every year. The money will go to bolster services already proven to help the homeless get housed and back on their feet.

Santa Monica’s Social Services Commission chair believes the City could see a significant portion of that money.

“Since Santa Monica has such a strong record to responding to homelessness, there’s a chance we will benefit from the funding because we’ve already built up the infrastructure to get the results,” Shawn Landres said.

The money can fund a wide array of programs including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, job training and rent subsidies. That funding can’t come soon enough, according to Landres, who says the County has hit a breaking point.

“It has been really unrelenting in terms of across the county seeing the rise in the number of women and children who are homeless,” Landres said. “It’s just unacceptable. A rise in the number of seniors who are homeless is unacceptable.”

“It’s holding up a mirror to all of us in Los Angeles County and saying, ‘what kind of a society are we?’”

The new tax requires a two-thirds vote to pass. The measure enjoys broad support from city councils, mayors, hospitals, union groups and even developers who have donated to the campaign. Philanthropist and liberal activist Tom Steyer has donated $250,000 to getting the measure passed, according to County records. A real estate investment firm founded by Frank McCourt donated $50,000.

However, the timing of the measure has some supporters worried.  Voter turnout tends to dampen during March elections. Absentee ballots for the election went out this week.

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place the tax on the ballot. Santa Monica’s City Council has also voted to support the measure.

To Landes, the widespread support of the measure is a reflection of the economic fragility many face, homeless or not. A 2014 report from the Federal Reserve released last year found nearly fifty percent of Americans could not immediately cover an emergency expense of $400. That type of instability combined with rising local rents, has contributed to an expanding problem, according to Landes.

Losing your home can make it nearly impossible to get back on your feet.

“That’s just profoundly unsettling,” Landes said. “It’s an experience that no one should ever face. It changes the way you interact with the world.”