Voters in Antioch will cast their ballots next month on a half-cent sales tax that would raise an estimated $4.3 million annually to allow the city to beef up its police department and code enforcement staff. The city council voted unanimously last June to place the measure on the ballot for the Nov. 5 election as the city wrestles with a multimillion-dollar deficit prompted by revenue losses during the economic downturn.
At the same time, the city’s police force and code enforcement units have shrunk as crime and neighborhood blight spreads. “It’s cumulative, if you look at the lack of policing, crime and blight,” Antioch City Councilman Gary Agopian said. “We’ve not been treading water, we’ve been drowning when it comes to that.” To combat Antioch’s fiscal and public safety problems, voters are being asked to consider a measure that would add half a penny per dollar, or five cents for every $10 spent in the city, raising the city’s existing sales tax to 9 cents per dollar.
That would put the city’s sales tax rate on par with other nearby municipalities including Concord, Richmond, Pinole and next-door neighbor Pittsburg. The tax, which would automatically expire after seven years, would allow the city to add about 20 new police officers and at least double its current staff of three city code enforcement workers, according to city officials.
While not enough to solve Antioch’s budget problems, city leaders say, the roughly $4.3 million the tax would generate each year would pave the way out of its current financial crisis. Since the recession hit, the city’s dwindling property revenues have cost it nearly 40 sworn police officers and forced the near-closure of its code enforcement department, according to city officials. Antioch’s crime rate jumped 30 percent in 2012 from 2011 and the rate of blighted, neglected properties has risen, city officials say.
“We’re at a point where safety is at risk, people are not feeling safe in their homes, there’s blight going on that can’t be followed up on properly,” Antioch City Councilwoman Monica Wilson said. “We need these funds to help bring it back up to a level where people feel safe,” she said. Agopian noted that the city has lost $12 million annually since the recession hit, and has cut millions from the budget through hiring freezes, reduced retirement benefits for non-public safety workers, postponed wage increases and weekly furlough days across city departments.
Council members say there is nowhere left to cut. Agopian said the passage of Measure C would be “transformative for Antioch … where we increasingly see our city become safer, a city moving forward with financial stability.” But some, like former Antioch City Councilman Ralph Hernandez, say the half-cent sales tax is unnecessary since property values are on the rise and contend that city leaders should do more to cut costs instead of imposing a new tax on residents.
“We in Antioch could have those officers and other employees back employed but for the overly generous salaries and benefits and pensions that the police groups are getting,” Hernandez said. “(The City Council) needs to reign in the financial debts that they have created.” Hernandez also warns that there is no guarantee that the city council would use revenue from the tax on public safety and code enforcement.
However, a longer list of community notables have voiced support for the measure, including members of the Antioch Unified School District, the Antioch Police Officers’ Association, and a growing group of concerned citizens called Take Back Antioch. Measure C is similar to a half-cent sales tax measure rejected by 52 percent of Antioch voters in 2010. It requires majority approval to pass.
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