A sigh of relief echoed across a last-ditch public meeting in Westminster on Friday morning, when council members agreed to let insistent residents decide on a sales tax measure that, if approved, could keep City Hall from going bankrupt.
In November, Westminster voters won’t face the choice of an additional tax increase. Instead, they’ll decide on an extension of the current 1% transaction tax rate that voters approved in 2016, and it would last for 20 more years.
The tax measure was about to expire, and was supposed to get officials ahead on years of fiscal mismanagement. But with political disarray and a COVID-19 pandemic, the burn rate of funds grew more troublesome, and the measure only struggled to keep Westminster even.
The city’s been staring down the barrel of bankruptcy and officials expected it as soon as 2024.
Officials say they’re still looking at a minimum $3 million yearly budget deficit in the time to come, even if city voters approve the measure.
Meanwhile, as residents objected to a potential Westminster of stray shopping carts, unkempt streets, and fenced-off parks, the dysfunctional City Council sank into endless bickering at meetings since 2019.
All the while, budget talks went by fleetingly, despite numerous staff warnings about the tax measure crisis, and with no will to allow voters a choice.
The most recent instance was last Wednesday night, when the same three council members – Charlie Nguyen, Tai Do and Mayor Tri Ta – took non-votes in opposition to the sales tax ballot measure, as they did on several prior occasions.
But council members agreed to take another crack at it two days later, heading back to the meeting chambers at 11 a.m. on Friday, where residents held signs calling them “Chicken shits.”
That’s when Ta and Nguyen flipped and voted yes on the ballot measure. Do remained unsupportive, with a non-vote abstention.
Council members Kimberly Ho and Carlos Manzo also voted yes.
“We have heard you loudly and clearly from the other night and today,” Nguyen said before the vote, adding he’s lost sleep over the issue.
Before their votes, however, both Nguyen and Ta again either claimed no-tax conservative principles or argued there were ways to get the city ahead financially without any tax increase, without giving specific ideas on Friday.
Manzo told his colleagues the issue wasn’t a Republican or Democrat one, not with the seemingly incalculable losses the city could soon face.
“This is a math problem we have in our city.”
Do said little on Friday, but has, for much of this issue, echoed the arguments of Ta and Nguyen.
In turn, he had a special place in some public speakers’ outrage on Friday. He ran for office in 2018 on a platform of reform for City Hall, presenting himself as a change agent over the following years.
But the Long Beach police officer, who often ridiculed the political establishment on social media, now found himself aligning with it on the ballot measure, and was now being called “the worst thing to happen to this council” by some on Friday.
“You have been irrelevant to this council, you won’t get on board with anything,” said Diana Carrey, a member of a citizens’ fiscal oversight committee and former council member. “I am just disappointed, and I just think your actions have been despicable.”
The issue united residents to perhaps unprecedented levels.
On Friday, there were the usual faces – long time observers like Terry Rains, or Camila Overbeek.
But there were also community organizers with the group called VietRISE, who complained of seeing more campaign signs than restored parks and clean streets on their way to City Hall.
There were other conservatives, chiding fellow conservatives on the dais, and a retired sheriff’s deputy.
There was Gina Nunes of the city’s Family Resource Center, which she said supplies families with things like “empowerment services,” counseling, and diapers. She also said it’s “the only Family Resource Center offering services in Vietnamese.”
“The Family Resource Center will be another one of the valuable programs and services to no longer exist in the community … This community and its residents will lose a very necessary and valuable resource.”
The crowd was multigenerational, there were seniors from the mobile home parks, and war refugees.
All of them bearing the same warning for those up on the dais.
“It’s gonna turn to shit,” said one speaker at the public microphone.
“This is an issue the City Council has known about for the past three years, and yet there were not more concerted and more urgent actions taken sooner,” said Allison Vo, one lead VietRISE organizer.
Vo noted the absence of a Vietnamese language translator at Friday’s special meeting, a role that’s more or less been in flux as officials in town grapple with how to work non-language comments into meetings more efficiently.
“There are senior residents who showed up who are monolingual, who are refugees … (who) should have access to a translator — if that doesn’t reiterate the point the city needs the tax measure, to allow your residents to speak about issues that concern them, I don’t know what else,” Vo said.