In Closed Session

If you were paying attention in 2016, and particularly in 2017, the announcement Monday that city leaders will ask voters to extend a 1 percent sales tax hike came as no surprise.

It was called Measure A back then. The added penny on the dollar would be in place for six years, then it would drop to .5 percent for four more years before going away completely.

The promise was the money would go for street, sidewalk and building repair as well as public safety needs. It passed with 59.7 percent of the vote.

As far as anyone can tell, the $60 million or so a year has been spent as promised. Lots of potholes filled, streets repaved, roofs repaired an more. And money was spent to bring back an advanced life support ambulance and a fire engine (that translates to more firefighters). Permanent staff at police and fire academies was paid for, and a bunch of cops that would have been cut otherwise were kept on the payroll.

That second half, all those new and continuing public safety jobs, was the signal that the sun would never set on Measure A.

It's simple — add permanent staff and you're going to have to find a permanent way to pay them. You don't want to fire in 2027 all those cops and firefighters you hired in 2017, do you?

Unless you believe in the revenue fairy dropping tens of millions of dollars in the city's general fund, that means continuing the thing that allowed you to fill the positions in the first place.

Sure, there are some other reasons for the proposed March 3 sales tax ballot issue, and some good reasons why it's happening now, just three years into the world of 10.25 percent sales tax.

It's true that the City Council promised to pay $25 million over the next 10 years to help reopen Community Hospital without explaining where that money would come from. It's just as true that the $88 million plus already spent on infrastructure put only a small dent in the deferred maintenance needs priced at up to $2.3 billion.

But the real need is to keep a revenue source to at least maintain the status quo in the Police and Fire departments. It felt good to actually have money to improve those departments, didn't it? Imagine how bad it will feel if those improvements go away because there was no way to pay for them.

Why now? Because there are other agencies lining up to tap the sales tax bank should Long Beach turn its take down.

Fair warning, it gets a little messy here.

State law caps the sales tax at 10.25 percent no matter who gets the tax revenue — it's split now between state, Los Angeles County and city. In fact, the county Measure H tax hike for homelessness, passed and sunset the same as Long Beach's Measure A, is set to gobble up that 1/2 cent Long Beach will give up in 2023. For reasons too obscure to try to explain, if a sales tax extension is passed, the city actually would get .75 percent between 2023 and 2027 before going back to the additional 1 percent.

Other agencies are working on their own proposals to take a piece of the sales tax pie as we speak. Mayor Robert Garcia makes no secret of the fact he wants a ballot measure next March to beat those agencies to the punch.

The City Council will vote Tuesday whether to move forward with the request to voters to make this level of sales tax permanent. Sorry, it's technically a request to extend Measure A indefinitely — which, if you've been paying attention, you know means permanent.

Garcia believes completely, almost fervently, in polling the city's residents before asking them for something. Polling on this issue shows there's more support today to continue Measure A than there was to pass it in the first place.

And that makes sense. We've seen what that extra penny can do when it comes to keeping our Police and Fire departments healthy enough to protect us. We like watching sidewalks and streets being repaired.

And if somebody's going to get money by keeping the sales tax at 10.25 percent, it is best that we're that somebody.

We'll have another eight months to debate this to death, and there will be plenty of very vocal opponents. But bottom line, are you willing to tell the Police and Fire chiefs to cut their departments' budgets?

Me neither.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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