Westminster oversight committee urges council to put sales tax on ballot

Westminster voters approved Measure SS, a 1% sales tax, in 2016 with a six-year sunset.

By SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | Orange County Register

PUBLISHED: June 14, 2022 at 5:18 p.m. | UPDATED: June 14, 2022 at 5:22 p.m.

Westminster’s Citizen Oversight Committee is imploring the city council to put sales tax extension on the November ballot — arguing its revenue has kept the city from falling into bankruptcy.

During a special joint meeting between the council and oversight committee Monday, committee chair Diana Carey chided the council for holding another discussion about the issue rather than moving forward with a vote.

“What else do you need to know?” she said. “It’s unconscionable that you would let (the tax) sunset.”

Westminster voters approved Measure SS, a 1% sales tax, in 2016. For a tax initiative, it has a short shelf life of only six years.

Diana Carey, chair of the Citizen Oversight Committee and former Westminster council member, is advocating for the sales tax extension to be put on the November ballot.

Diana Carey, chair of the Citizen Oversight Committee and former Westminster council member, is advocating for the sales tax extension to be put on the November ballot.

That means it will expire Dec. 31 — for at least three months, regardless of what happens in the general election. Even if voters were to OK an extension, it would not kick in until April 2, 2023.

Now city officials are under a tight deadline. The Orange County Registrar of Voters has a cutoff date of Aug. 12 for additions to the upcoming ballot.

In order to secure a chance at renewing the measure, a super majority — four out of five council members — must agree to offer up the measure. However, then only a simple majority of voters would need to give it a green light.

Measure SS has brought the city about $14 million annually, according to staff reports.

Without its extension, Finance Director Erin Backs told the council in March, the city “will be completely out of money” by the 2024-25 fiscal year.” Westminster would need drastic slashes to make up for lost tax revenue, she said

Despite staff recommendations and pleas from the oversight committee — a group that oversees the use of the SS tax revenue — renewing the sales tax may prove to be an uphill battle.

Councilman Tai Do, who voted against putting an extension on the 2020 ballot, said Monday that he hesitates to “give a blank check to our city (for it) to keep mismanaging money.”

Mayor Tri Ta, a candidate for the California Assembly, abstained without comment on a sales tax vote two years ago.

And although Councilman Chi Charlie Nguyen passionately argued for the measure in 2020, neither he nor Ta have publicly committed to a position this time around. Ta and Nguyen, constant allies on the council, did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Do suggested that, after years of infighting among council members, “new leadership and direction” will help lead the city to prosperity.

Since joining the council in 2018, Do has butted heads with Ta, the citywide-elected mayor for a decade. With Ta running for State Assembly this year, the mayoral seat is up for grabs.

“I believe the foundation is set to grow,” Do said. “Instead of just, ‘get tax money,’ a unified council (can) introduce programs to move the city forward.”

But oversight committee members responded that a cohesive dais is not enough.

“I agree the city council has to get its act together, but that is a completely separate issue from re-authorization of the measure,” said Carey, a former member of the council who now sits on the board of the Huntington Beach Union High School District.

Councilman Carlos Manzo concurred.

“It’s pretty obvious that Measure SS is what’s keeping us afloat,” he said. “We should make sure the community has the opportunity to decide.”

Likewise, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho expressed support for the ballot initiative, as she did in the failed 2020 attempt. This time, she said, the tax should not terminate so quickly.

“I’m not playing the blame game, but a six-year sunset was not realistic,” said Ho, who joined the council in 2016 after the previous slate of members put Measure SS on the ballot. “We have to be brave enough to do the right thing for our residents.”

Westminster has struggled with financial woes for decades.

In 1978, the passage of Prop. 13 locked Westminster into a lower-than-average return on property taxes compared with other cities in Orange County, Backs said in an interview. Then, when California ended redevelopment funding in 2012, Westminster was left without a revenue source for many of its basic services — leading to layoffs and cutbacks in city services.

Combined with county and state taxes, Westminster now has a total sales tax of 8.75 percent. The city receives the bulk of its general fund revenue from property taxes and Measure SS.

At recent meetings, council members asked staff to analyze additional funding options — including electronic billboards, business license enforcement, and vendor kiosks in the Civic Center.

But oversight committee member Ruth Piker said that won’t be enough.

“We need multiple solutions,” Piker said. “New leadership cannot make changes without money. All those great ideas and projects for new revenue? You can only do them if the lights are on.”


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