Local Election

Here’s why some business owners fear the city’s proposed sales tax hike in Los Banos

Los Banos Police Department

Some Los Banos residents are telling their neighbors to vote against the city’s half-percent sales tax hike on the November election ballot.

They said the tax, which raises general purpose funds “for any legitimate governmental purpose,” is not specific enough and could harm low-income residents and businesses.

The tax hike, designated “Measure H” on the Nov. 6 ballot, would raise the sales tax from 8.25 to 8.75 percent, collecting about $2.5 million every year for 15 years.

According to a list of spending priorities, the city plans to spend 45 percent on maintaining police patrols and crime prevention, about 15 percent on resources for firefighters, 15 percent toward maintaining parks and recreation facilities, 10 percent on 9-1-1 response, and 5 percent each on cleaning up city blight, youth programs and curbing gang influence, and maintaining long-term financial stability.

The city listed the priorities after a survey interviewed several hundred residents about what they want in the city. Public safety was the top priority.

But the proposed measure doesn’t hold the city to that spending plan, meaning future city councils aren’t tied to use the funds in those ways.

“They’re trying to make a specific tax out of a general tax,” said Mike Hughes, a former Los Banos police chief and the local VFW commander. “I’m not saying the city doesn’t need the money. When the election comes and you have different people (on the City Council), they may not have the same ideas.”

The measure does require the City council to establish a citizen oversight committee to evaluate projects and initiatives funded by Measure H, and make recommendations for the next year’s Measure H projects.

However, critics don’t believe the oversight committee goes far enough to ensure funds are used for their original purpose.

“The oversight committee doesn’t have any teeth,” Hughes said, explaining that the committee would investigate uses after they happen, and wouldn’t have any meaningful say in the City Council’s decisions on how to use the funds.

If Measure H is passed with at least 50 percent of the vote plus one vote, opponents fear the sales tax increase could also harm the average Los Banos resident, said Kathy Ballard, the owner of the Baskin Robbins ice cream shop in Los Banos.

With 22 percent of residents living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data, Ballard said asking them to pay even dozens of dollars extra every year would hurt.

“It’s huge that (the sales tax) would be one percent higher than the cities around us,” Ballard said. “Maybe not for everyday stuff, but people will be going to other places for say a washer an dryer, landscaping their homes, remodeling.”

Ballard endorsed an official opposition letter to Measure H to the Merced County Elections Office, noting that the city should write specific language that would narrow the scope of the funds.

In a rebuttal to Ballard’s opposition letter, several community leaders didn’t address her concerns specifically but reiterated support of Measure H.

The rebuttal letter was signed by Justin Melden of the Los Banos Police Sergeants Association, business owner Marlene Freitas, Measure P Oversight Committee Board Member Diana Ingram, Former Los Banos Chamber of commerce President Erik Limon and Los Banos Volunteer Fire Chief Darrall Gargano.