(Mod: Today's column in the Pasadena Star News deals with the defeat of the 2 UUT Measures on April 10.)
A most remarkable thing happened recently in the sleepy foothill village of Sierra Madre. This town, which has long had a reputation for its colorful election year battles, is in reality not all that different from most other L.A. County bedroom communities. While the hyper-political Hatfields and McCoys of these leafy hillside streets shoot it out on blogs, Facebook pages, in weekly newspapers and through "phone trees" (the political equivalent of the old party line), your average Sierra Madre work-a-daddy and mommy would actually be hard-pressed to name the Mayor. Their concerns being decidedly elsewhere.
Which is why this month's election took many by surprise. Whereas most voting days in recent years have seen turnouts of less than 40%, this one attracted more voters than had been seen in, well, awhile. The modern standard for excellence in a voter turnout category had been the 43% seen in 2007's Measure V election. But that record was severely tested. The April 10, 2012 election here saw nearly 60% of all absentee voters mail in their ballots. It was unprecedented. The lines at the polling places were notable as well, spilling out through the doors and down into the streets.
What was the cause of so much excitement? Oddly enough, it was the renewal of a Utility User Tax increase that had originally been approved 4 years earlier. This 2008 ballot question, which was labeled Measure U, called for a utility tax hike from 6% on 5 categories to upwards of 12% on 9 categories. A rather massive increase designed to cover the costs of a police salary increase and the implementation of a paramedic program. This Measure was approved by a huge 63% to 37% margin.
There was a sunset clause attached to Measure U, however, and in order to keep utility tax rates from falling back into the now problematic 6% range, the City of Sierra Madre needed to put the matter back on the ballot in 2012 for a voter renewal. This time called Measure 12-1, it was pretty much a duplicate of Measure U, with a slightly longer sunset period. The result this time? It went down in flames, by a 61% to 39% spread. A nearly identical percentage, but this time turned upon its head.
Why so radical a taxpayer mood swing in a mere 4 years? It would seem to have something to do with a water rate hike gone wrong. In 2010, under the auspices of then Mayor Joe Mosca, it was decreed that water rates needed to increase. This was presented as necessary due to the aging of much of the City's water infrastructure. An antiquated system made up of ancient equipment and pipes, some of which predated World War I.
This explanation was made plausible by numerous water main leaks, many of which coincidentally occurred right around the time the problem became a topic for discussion. Residents were resigned to paying more.
However, one resident was not convinced. And using the connections in Sacramento she had developed over the years in her work as a bond broker, discovered that the actual reason the City was calling for higher water rates was quite different from the version originally put out.
Apparently there were millions of dollars in old water bonds that had slipped out of covenant, and unless the City built up its cash reserves municipal bond ratings would plummet. Backed up with this irrefutable state information, she took the story to my blog. It quickly became a topic of public concern. City Hall had no choice but to change its story.
A city that is no longer trusted will always have trouble getting additional money from its residents. And once lied to, the taxpayers will not be forgiving. The City of Sierra Madre will be paying dearly for its water rate shenanigans for many years to come.