Monday Dec 16, 2013
Elaine Aguilar, City Manager
232 West Sierra Madre Blvd.
Sierra Madre, CA 91024
City Attorney, Sierra Madre, CA
Colantuono & Levin
300 South Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90071
Re: Water / Sewer Rate Increase, It’s the Prop 218 Process Stupid
We received, “Public Hearing Notice with Official l Protest Ballot Attached” dated December 4, 2013 on December 14, 2013. There are concerns about the intent and legality of the process used to inform residents and the process for vote determination. Please respond to the concerns outlined below.
The process, Prop 218, where a non vote becomes a yes vote for legal recording may have been passed by the State Legislature (where the firm of Colantuano & Levin played a significant role in its content and passage), but the intent also was and is to confuse and disguise the desired result. The rate increases are nothing less a Tax increase, which call for a two thirds vote for approval. The subterfuge of the Prop 218 process is awesome.
The instruction to “identify on the front of the sealed envelope for any protest whether mailed or submitted in person, that a “WATER OR SEWER FEE PROTEST IS ENCLOSED”. This is an odd instruction and leads to suspicion, as well as a second attempt to sell the Tax Increase as “FEES”. The orange envelope included in the packet would alone suffice for a returned ballot. No identification of the ballot inside (no or yes identified) is needed. Again, other than an oblique reference to a “final meeting on Tuesday Jan 28 2014 at 6:30 pm in the City Council Chambers, City Hall to consider adopting an increase in rates for water and sewer”, no date for the ballot's return is instructed. We are led to believe this is not a Tax but a rate increase, and the failure to include a closing date on the ballot makes this an open ended process that may well result in confusion.
Item #3 Tabulation of Protests narrative, “The sealed protests will be opened and tabulated by Sierra Madre Staff Members who do not reside in the City of Sierra Madre, as such, they do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the proposed fee”. This is complete nonsense! Staff and Executives of Sierra Madre depend on Taxes and Fees for salaries, pensions, capitol needs and many other expenses with a vested interest in the outcome of this “Fee, Rate, or Tax”. Where the employees of Sierra Madre live is irrelevant. To allow the City Manager to be a participant in the counting of votes is most concerning as the outcome of the Tax Increase Ballot will affect how the City Manager administers the City. One assumes that the City Manager is most interested in an increase in Taxes for obvious reasons and should not participate in the process. The tabulation process should be completed by the City Clerk and and Accounting Firm Designate. No Sierra Madre Employee should have any access to these ballots until tabulated. This is pretty basic protocol for a fair and constitutional election.
Finally the Protest Ballots that might be judged incomplete or not properly filled out should be identified and if they are legitimate Sierra Madre Water and or Sewer Customers, be put on a publicized list, contacted, and given the chance to make adjustments for ballot inclusion. There is no reason automatic exclusion should be part of this process. This should be an easy task for a small town like Sierra Madre.
The Tabulation of Protests section included in the packet should be completed and certified by the City Clerk and Accounting Firm CPA. No City Employee other than the City Clerk should have any input or control over the vote outcome. It is far too important!
The Prop 218 process reviewed above is only a start on what needs to happen in Sierra Madre. The emasculating and dismissal of the Oversight Committee reflects the highhanded techniques preferred by the City Manager and some City Council Members that cloud the process of how the City will spend its Funds. Transparency must become the process and strictly monitored by an Oversight Committee. It is time we know how the City plans and then actually spends Bond and Tax Funds.
But first the sloppy Prop 218 Process must be fixed.
James L Engle
Certified to City Manager
Certified to City Attorney
Copies to: City Council Members
(Mod: The "sealed protests will be opened and tabulated by Sierra Madre Staff Members who do not reside in the City of Sierra Madre, as such, they do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the proposed fee" bit is pretty funny. As far as I know there is currently only one management level City Hall employee that lives in Sierra Madre right now. Which means that almost anyone working there can count our Prop 218 ballots, vested interests and all.)
Sales Tax Rate Finder
(Mod: Ever wonder where to go to get the lowest sales tax rates in the area? If you are buying something large like a new car, that becomes an especially important consideration. And thanks to the California Board of Equalization you can now find out exactly how much sales tax you will be charged at any address in the state. Here is how the Sacramento Bee explains it.)
New California web tool allows sales tax rate searches (link): California levies a statewide 7.5 percent tax on retail sales but local governments and other agencies can add surtaxes for various purposes. The overall rate reaches as high as 10 percent in some localities.
That means that the tax on an identical transaction can vary considerably, depending on where the money changes hands, but knowing what tax rate applies at which retail location has been almost impossible.
If it matters, however, a new interactive, on-line tool (link) can tell the consumer what rate will apply.
The new Board of Equalization website allows the user to plug in an address and instantly learn the applicable rate. A purchase in downtown Sacramento, for example, would generate an 8.5 percent sales tax, but across the Sacramento River in West Sacramento it would be just 8 percent.
The highest rate of 10 percent is found in several small cities in Los Angeles County.
Board of Equalization member George Runner said he requested that the on-line tool be developed because even some retailers don't know what rates to charge because they change frequently.
(Mod: I did check Sierra Madre and the combined state and local sales tax rate in our little town is 9%.)