With the city facing an annual shortfall of approximately $1 million and the possibility of it getting worse over the next five years, a man at the center of a potential remedy to it all, stood on the footsteps asking for help.
“Take one, no take two if you know someone who can use one,” urged Dean Serwin regarding the multiple campaign signs strewn across the lawn. Serwin acts as the co-chair of Measure A, a ballot measure asking South Pasadena voters to approve a 0.75 percent increase in the city’s sales tax to support the local budget.
Organizers, including Serwin, co-chair Yuki Cutcheon, and Sally Kilby, the group’s fundraising chair, kicked off the campaign Wednesday night with an ice cream social, drumming up support for the proposed hike outside the South Pasadena Library Community Room.
“We have a simple choice,” Serwin told the gathering at sunset. “Either raise new revenues significantly or have very significant and deep cuts” (to city services). Whether you’re happy or not with everything about our city, what I hope is that you’re more happy with retaining what we have. That’s why I’m asking you to come out and vote.”
Serwin encouraged those on hand to take a campaign sign reading “South Pasadena Gets an A. Let’s Keep it That Way” for placement in front yards of local residences and businesses as election-day nears.
About 40 people listened to Serwin and Odom Stamps, a former mayor and representative on a multitude of city commissions over the years, talk about why they believe Measure A should be passed by voters on Tuesday, November 5.
Both echoed concerns about a city facing ongoing employee pension expenses and the difficulty of retaining employees who can earn more elsewhere in larger, neighboring communities, while explaining the pay scale to have employees do those tasks is at the bottom level compared to other cities in the San Gabriel Valley.
Stamps opened his remarks by talking about “some of the things the city does right,” saying, the average response time from the local police and fire departments is at or under 3½ minutes. He said the city is professionally run with services like a building and finance department “ just like all medium sized cities three to four times the size of ours.”
Yet, like many cities in the state, Stamps says South Pasadena is facing a financial hardship as a result of pension guarantees to government workers who have retired.
“We remunerate our retirees at a level of two percent of their salary for each year that they serve up to age 55,” Stamps explained. “Other cites let people retire at 50 and go to three (percent) and even higher than 3. We keep ours at two percent at age 55. It doesn’t attract the people who are on the up (track) trying to make the most money. But it does attract people who come here to serve our city and want to participate in it. I think we have good, solid employees. We have good response and we have good services. I commend the city for keeping a careful watch on what we’re able to spend on each employee.”
Stamps explained that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which all cities and county employees pay into for retirement, has not been able to keep up with the level of return on its investments to cover pensions.
“Consequently,” continued Stamps, bringing the situation to light for the everyday person, “it’s like finding out at the end of the month, the amount of money you put aside just isn’t going to cover your expenses.”
When that happens in the government world, CALPERS sends notices to cities saying, ‘Look, you have to cover this much more of the percentage of your retirees who have not been covered,” Stamps said. “That’s not happening just in South Pasadena but (in cities) throughout the state of California right now.”
The League of California Cities, claimed Stamps, estimates in the next three to five years up to 20 percent of the cities in the state, “cities like South Pasadena,” he emphasized, “will probably be in a bankruptcy situation like Stockton. So, we have to be very, very careful of the amount we pay people, but we also have to meet the obligation of people who have worked for us for many, many years and then retire. That is why we are asking everyone to rally around this measure.”
If passed, the sales tax increase will take the current percentage from 9.5 to 10 ¼, Serwin telling attendees 27 of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County have passed similar measures. Four other cities along with South Pasadena are also voting on a sales tax increase in November “and another five or six that are gearing up for it” in the future, he said. “Cities are saying, ‘Wait a minute, if there’s this money to be had and we’ve got a deficit, let’s get the money for us.’”
Measure A tax dollars, explained Serwin, can only be used in South Pasadena. Currently the city receives a mere 1 percent of the 9.5 percent sales tax. A city survey last spring showed that 68% of likely voters are in favor of increasing the sales tax.
Serwin said the additional ¾ of a cent increase will raise an approximately $1.5 million annually at the city’s current level of development. “The city has a long term plan that they’re looking to put into place to increase development in the city, increase the tax base to fund the gap,” he added. The measure has been endorsed by the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.
In the next fiscal year, Serwin said the city is facing a $1 million shortfall. The tax increase “is money we’re looking for to keep what we have,” he said, stressing the need to attract and retain quality employees, especially in local police and fire (departments) “who know the town and know who we are. That’s what we’re looking to maintain and preserve.”
In 2018, the community members voted to retain the city’s Utility Users’ Tax (UUT) by nearly 80 percent and now residents are being asked for their help again as the city is unable to balance its budget. According to the Yes on A Measure website, South Pasadena city officials predict a deficit of $1 million by June 2021 and $2 million by 2026 unless there is a solution.
The South Pasadena Committee for Fiscal Stability 2019–Yes on Measure A, was formed to support the ballot measure and communicate why the group believes the new revenue source is critically important to the city.
“We need your help,” Serwin raised his voice at the conclusion of Wednesday’s kickoff. “Please grab a sign on your way out.”
For more on Measure A, proponents have developed a website at SouthPasYesonA.com