A Nervous Westminster City Council Takes Another Hard Look at Increasing Sales Taxes Today

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing

Westminster City Council Chambers.

Westminster’s city council members today will once again face off against a stark set of limited choices, such as defunding the police department or further spiking local sales taxes. 

City officials have convened another special meeting for today to revisit the possibility of putting a sales tax increase before voters in November.

The deadline for cities to submit ballot measures to county elections officials is the same day of the meeting.

If council members approve putting the question on a ballot measure this year, it could possibly prevent millions in revenue losses and eventual bankruptcy a few years after the current 1% sales tax increase expires in 2022. 

The city’s financial woes and reliance on the current sales tax increase, approved by voters in 2016, stem from years of controversy over its spending choices. 

When former California governor Jerry Brown did away with redevelopment agencies in 2011, Westminster found itself in the face of calamity, having used redevelopment money to stabilize its finances and subsidize staff salaries.

At the same time, public safety costs have soared, as in the case of most cities, largely due to large pension increases for officers.

In addition, salary increases granted by council members — granted by council members after the last sales tax increase was approved — also has helped spike overall pension liabilities. 

Other missteps have also cost taxpayers dearly. 

In the years following the end of redevelopment subsidies, a federal discrimination lawsuit against the police department left the city on the hook for millions of dollars.

Ensuing corruption and wrongdoing claims against the city by numerous former employees — including a police chief — were settled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money.

Staring down eventual bankruptcy in 2016, city council members approved the original sales tax increase measure that in turn got approved by voters and put into effect in 2017 — bringing the city around $11-13 million extra dollars annually.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Westminster City Council at its March 27, 2019 meeting.

Now, even with the continuation of the sales tax increase at its current 1% rate, city staff say they’re still on the path to eventual bankruptcy. Staff are asking any ballot language to propose an adjusted 1.5% sales tax increase with an indefinite time period — meaning no sunset clause.

It’s the same proposal council members faced at a special Monday meeting, a few days earlier — a proposal that largely drew initial silence and a loss for words across the panel.

“I don’t want to see layoffs,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Ho through tears at one point in the meeting, as she and her colleagues took in a daunting presentation by staff about the potential job losses at City Hall to come. 

A motion by Ho to put the sales tax continuation – and a further hike of the already-increased rate from 1% to 1.5% – on the ballot failed without enough support on the council. 

A substitute motion by Councilman Sergio Contreras to place on the ballot a continuation of the current 8.75% sales tax with no further increase – which staff argued was necessary because not even the current rate could sustain the city’s finances in the coming years – also failed for lack of support because it needed four votes.

That vote failed because Mayor Tri Ta abstained without giving a reason, while Councilman Tai Do – who along with Councilman Charlie Nguyen said very little during the meeting – voted “No.”

Friday’s meeting begins at 12:00 p.m.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.