Months of debate and dissension gave way Thursday night to a unanimous Lompoc City Council decision, greeted by applause, to let city voters decide whether to approve a 1-percent sales hike.
During a special meeting, the City Council heard from a financial consultant and weighed various aspects of the sales tax measure before agreeing to put the matter before voters on the March 2020 ballot.
“Tonight’s decision by council will be setting the direction of the city for quite some time,” City Manager Jim Throop said at the start of the meeting.
The motion by Councilman Victor Vega called for a general sales tax hike, with a 15-year sunset clause.
His suggestion for a general tax, and not a special sales tax, provided a key distinction. A general sales tax hike requires more than 50 percent voter approval, while the special tax needs more than two-third, or 66 percent, to pass, a number that could prove more challenging, if not impossible.
“Thank you all for changing your minds. I believe you finally listened to the community,” said Mayor Jenelle Osborne, who has consistently supported asking voters to consider the sales tax increase.
Lompoc’s current sales tax rate sits at 7.75 percent and would rise to 8.75 percent if voters approve the measure. Santa Maria and Santa Barbara shoppers currently pay 8.75 percent while the rate is 9 percent in Carpinteria and 7.75 percent in Solvang and Buellton.
Thursday’s action, which required a 5-0 vote, marked the first step toward the process of letting voters decide whether raise the sales tax by 1 percent, following several other Santa Barbara County cities that have successfully obtained increases.
Lompoc’s council will make other decisions, including the specific question, to formalize the sales tax ballot measure in the coming weeks to meet the late October deadline for getting the item to voters for the presidential primary election on March 2.
One proposed question presented Thursday mentioned the measure could “maintain and enhance essential public services” and help “pay down of long-term liabilities, providing greater fiscal stability for the city.”
Staff has estimated the salex tax boost would add $5 million to city coffers.
Amid financial woes, Lompoc has tightened its budget drastically, leaving vacant slots in public safety agencies, laying off other employees, and taking other cost-saving measures.
Sales tax hike proceeds would help ease the city’s financial ails, not totally cure them, city officials said.
“It’s a definite step in the right direction for us to take a breath again,” Throop said.
The meeting began with a presentation by financial consultant NHA Advisors about the city’s unfunded accrued liabilities — growing payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS.
The $93 million unfunded liabilities rose from $35 million seven years ago, or 163 percent, according to the presentation. The annual payment of $9 million for 2020 is expected to quickly blossom to $13 million.
The debt to CalPERS has been blamed as one key source for Lompoc’s financial woes and what some argued was a need for the sales tax measure.
As part of efforts to ease the city’s financial woes, the council has explored paying off its CalPERS obligation to save millions of dollars, a decision that would lock in future leaders to large payments.
“Saving the people $21 million over the next 15 years isn’t a bad deal,” Councilman Jim Mosby said. “It’s a decent way to solve this.”
As they have in the past, multiple residents and public safety employees spoke out for and against the tax measures.
Chip Arias, from Lompoc Police Officers Association, presented crime statistics by council members’ voting districts, noting stolen vehicles, homicides, shootings and other crimes that have plagued the city and challenged an understaffed police force.
“The tax is a good thing. It’s a necessary thing,” Arias said.
Lompoc resident Nikolai Nikolenko conducted a one-man protest outside City Hall before Thursday’s meeting and urged the council to consider asking voters for special tax to boost revenue for public safety.
“We want accountability. We want to know where our tax dollars are going,” he said.
If voters approve the measure in March, the city wouldn’t expect to see the first revenue until at least October, Throop said.