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Sales-tax measure will not be on November ballot

By JOE BRITTON

City News Service

A proposal for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase failed Monday to secure the required six votes by the San Diego City Council to be placed on the November ballot.

Council members Donna Frye, Carl DeMaio and Kevin Faulconer were opposed.

In an unexpected move, Frye said she would not support putting a half-cent sales tax increase before San Diego voters unless it were attached to a comprehensive plan to solve the city’s fiscal crisis.

“That position is a position I have held for many, many years,” Frye told her colleagues.

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The City Council voted 5-3 to direct the City Attorney’s Office to draft ballot language for consideration Tuesday. While that motion technically passed, it was clear that the six votes needed to put the sales tax increase on the Nov. 2 ballot were not there, and the entire effort was abandoned.

Nearly two weeks ago, Mayor Jerry Sanders, under pressure from fellow Republicans and business groups, abandoned his proposal to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax hike as one of several options to help solve San Diego’s budget woes.

The most recent ballot proposal was advanced by City Council President Ben Hueso, who maintained that new revenues are needed to prevent the further deterioration of city services, especially public safety, due to ongoing budget shortfalls.

“This was simply going to help us prevent devastating cuts,” Hueso said.

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Opponents argued that the city should continue to pursue fiscal and pension reforms rather than raise taxes amid a recession.

DeMaio called the proposed sales tax hike a “bailout.”

“This tax increase will not solve the financial problems,” DeMaio said. “They will get worse.”

“Our services will continue to be cut until we deal with the $3.4 billion elephant in the room — the unfunded nature and the unsustainable nature of the pension and retiree health care benefits given to city employees,” he said.

A half-cent sales tax increase would have generated $103 million annually, according to Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin.

That’s money Frank DeClerq, president of the San Diego City Firefighters Local 145, said at a news conference this morning outside downtown’s Fire Station 1, would prevent further cuts to public safety.

“Cuts, brownouts and increasing response times are taking the Fire-Rescue Department in the wrong direction,” DeClerq said.

The idea of a sales tax increase gained momentum last week after San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Javier Mainar said emergency services cuts may have played a role in the death of a toddler who choked on a gumball.

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Due to the city’s “brownout” program, which idles fire engines on a rotating basis, it took firefighters 9 1/2 minutes to respond to a 911 call Tuesday that a child was choking at a Mira Mesa home where he was visiting with family. Despite efforts to save him, 2-year-old Bentley Do was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

The “brownout” program was instituted to help the city overcome a $179 million budget deficit this fiscal year. The city also eliminated hundreds of positions and reduced library hours.

San Diego faces a projected budget deficit next fiscal year of $72 million - $80 million, according to Tevlin.

Jay Goldstone, the city’s chief operating officer, said the city may have to look at “more painful” cuts such as closing fire stations, laying off police officers, shuttering libraries and further trimming the parks and recreation budget to balance the budget.

“I’m not suggesting that we will come back with those kinds of recommendations,” Goldstone said. But, he cautioned that with more than half of the city’s general fund going to public safety, it leaves a lot of other areas “vulnerable.”

Had the City Council agreed to put the proposal on the ballot, and San Diego voters approved it, the city’s sales tax would have gone from 8.75 percent to 9.25 percent.