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Measure E foe open to general tax
Measure E foe open to general tax

Some Inland Empire Cities Agree to Higher Sales, Transient Occupancy Taxes

Voters in several communities acknowledge the need for better public services, especially stronger police and fire protection. Now those departments must decide on their spending priorities while they wait for the revenue to arrive.

Five months after Hemet voters said no, they changed their minds and said yes.

In June, the city’s electorate rejected Measure E, a special one cent sales tax increase that would have paid for more police and fire personnel.

Because Measure E almost passed, and because both departments desperately need to hire more people, backers of the failed special tax decided not to wait an election cycle or two before trying again.

On Tuesday, their work paid off.

While there were still some ballots to count, Measure U, a general tax that would add one cent to every dollar spent in Hemet, was leading comfortably, 59 percent to 41 percent, according to the Riverside County Registrar of Voters.

That means that Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown and Fire Chief Scott Brown can begin planning to make new hires, although perhaps not as quickly as they would like.

“When people pass something like this they expect to see something happen quickly, but in this case that’s not going to happen,” said Dave Brown, who like his counterpart in the fire department worked long hours to increase public support for Measure E, and then Measure U. “The first revenue from this won’t come in until next spring, at the earliest, so that will be a challenge.”

Measure U is expected to generate at least $10 million in revenue a year. Because it’s a general tax, it required only a majority vote to get approved. Measure E was a special tax, which requires a two-thirds majority vote, a level it was not able to reach.

By law, revenue created by a general tax can be spent on anything, but the Hemet City Council has declared that all funding generated by Measure U will be spent on upgrading Hemet’s police and fire departments.

Both departments have sustained so many budget cuts that they have reached a tipping point and are struggling to provide basic services to a city of approximately 82,000 residents.

The police department doesn’t have the resources to handle the estimated 17,000 calls it will receive this year, Dave Brown said.

“We’ve been fighting this battle for the better part of 10 years,” Dave Brown said. “People in the city have seen the downsizing we’ve had to deal with and they knew we needed help.”

The department’s first task will be to hire more officers, but that won’t necessarily be easy, Dave Brown said.

First, there’s a question of the economy and how much revenue Measure U will generate. If the economy slows down, there might not be enough money to hire enough people.

Second, there’s the challenge of finding officers who want to live and work in Hemet.

“There just aren’t a lot of trained, qualified officers out there,” Dave Brown said. “They’re very hard to find, but we need to find some and let them know what a good community Hemet is.”

The fire department’s first priority is to hire about 10 paramedics, enough to ensure that it has at least one in every station, Scott Brown said.

However, the fire department is facing the same problem the police department is facing: the money from Measure U, however much it turns out to be, won’t come in immediately.

“We don’t need to go on every call, but we do need to go on every call that’s important,” Scott Brown said. “Right now we’re having a hard time doing that, but fortunately Measure U passed. The community spoke loud and clear. People want a safe place to live, and they know that you need a safe community if you’re going to attract businesses.”

Hemet was not alone.

As of Friday, measures intended to raise taxes – either a sales tax or hotel occupancy tax – had either passed or were leading comfortably in Moreno Valley, Riverside, Menifee, Yucca Valley, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indian Wells. All appeared to be headed for approval.

Yucca Valley had two sales tax initiatives on its ballot, one to raise funds for public safety and community services and a second that will reduce the cost of sewer assessment.

A measure in Colton was trailing by 13 points and appeared headed to defeat, while tax-related propositions in Temecula and San Jacinto were too close to call.

That so many Inland Empire voters have apparently agreed to raise their sales taxes – or, in the case of Menifee, implement one for the first time – for public safety improvements is a sign of a healthy economy, Inland Empire economist John Husing said.

“A hotel [transit occupancy] tax isn’t as difficult to pass because the local consumers don’t really notice it, but a sales tax increase is different,” Husing said. “Those numbers are pretty impressive, and just because it’s one percent doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact. One percent of a car can generate a lot of revenue.”

About 250 bond measures, general taxes and special taxes appeared on local ballots Tuesday, according to the League of California Cities in Sacramento.

The passage of Measure L in Moreno Valley, which will increase the city’s hotel occupancy tax from eight percent to 13 percent, was hailed as a major victory for the city by Mayor Yxstian Gutierrez.

“Voters have given the City of Moreno Valley an important tool to continue providing high-quality services to our residents and business owners,” Gutierrez said in a statement on the city’s website. “These revenues will support the services provided to visitors while enhancing the quality of life in our community.”

Moreno Valley has 11 hotels and motels with a total of 931 rooms. Revenue from Measure L, which received more than 70 percent of the vote, will be used for various city services, including police and fire protection, 911 emergency response and street repair, according to the statement.

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