An amendment allowing money from a half-cent sales tax measure to continue to be used for salaries of emergency services personnel passed Tuesday night.
Measure K was approved by voters with 2,144 votes (86.4 percent) in favor and 337 (13.5 percent) opposed, with 100 percent of the precincts reporting.
The amendment will allow the city to temporarily use facilities funding from the town's Measure P sales tax (approved in 2004) for salaries of currently employed firefighters and police officers. The measure has a seven-year sunset clause and does not raise taxes.
"I’m very pleased and I thank the public for trusting us," said Mayor Mike Villalta.
Measure K will allow eight emergency services workers to continue to be paid from facilities funding in a half-cent sales tax known as Measure P, which goes toward for public safety equipment, facilities and personnel. As the economy suffered a downturn in 2009, voters approved Measure A, which pays for the salaries of six police officers and two firefighters. Measure K extends Measure A through 2020.
If Measure K had failed to receive two-thirds voter approval, the police and firefighter salaries would have been paid from the city’s general fund, and Los Banos officials were not confident of the city’s ability to bring in enough tax revenue to fund those salaries.
Police Chief Gary Brizzee has said the Police Department has 36 sworn officers and would be stretched thin if that number goes down to 30. There were 48 officer positions authorized in 2008, before the local economy took a dive.
“We can keep bodies,” Brizzee said when asked what the passage of Measure K meant for department staffing levels. “I think we’re going to be OK. We appreciate the people who voted ‘yes’ coming out and even the ‘NOs.’ Voting is an important part of our process.”
The Los Banos Fire Department has 14 paid and 27 volunteer firefighters. Fire Chief Chet Guintini said it is important to maintain staffing levels because of the need for an immediate response to medical and fire calls.
Guintini said the two firefighters whose salaries are being paid by the half-cent sales tax will likely see the majority of their income come out of the general fund in the next two years. He said although Measure K provides some relief to the general fund, the facilities money has been dwindling since Measure A passed in 2009.
"On the fire side of it we are going to be going into the red on the Measure P facilities funds. We knew that was going to happen," Guintini said.
However, he said, passing Measure K was critical.
“If this had failed we would have been back looking at reducing spending so we could maintain those employees,” Guintini said. “It’s a good day for the fire department, it’s a good day for the citizens of Los Banos.”
Opponents of Measure K believed the city had plenty of money to pay first responders without passing an extension of Measure A.
The city approved a budget in June with anticipated general fund revenue at $9.9 million and expenditures at $10.2 million. The difference is made up by general fund reserve money, which at $6.5 million is nearly double the 2008 amount.
This summer, City Manager Steve Carrigan eliminated a 2.5 percent salary contribution employees were asked to make in 2009 to their Cafeteria Plan for health, vision, dental and life insurance. The decline in salary contributions equates to $14,738 from the general fund and $857 from Measure P. A similar deal was also struck with the city’s Fire Department and non-unionized workers, such as public works and the finance departments.
Carrigan said he believes the vote shows residents understand the city’s needs. He said he does believe the housing market is rebounding and the city will be able to stop using Measure K before it sunsets in seven years.
“The plan is to bring the eight employees into the general fund as quick as possible,” Carrigan said. “We have a plan to bring two employees back into the general fund the first year (2014-15). The question will be do we go two (each year).”
Carrigan said it is important to be able to get back to using the Measure P facilities funds the way they were originally intended, on a firefighting training tower and new police station.