Two local ballot measures will be presented to Santa Monica voters on November 4 – one that has already generated considerable controversy, and the other, City officials hope, that may achieve a wider consensus.
Proposition T is the RIFT proposal (Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic) which has been the center of a lively debate since even before its supporters presented the petition signatures on April 23 to qualify it for the November ballot. Proposition SM is an amendment to the City’s existing Utility User Tax (UUT) as it relates to telecommunications services. Each proposition requires a simple majority vote for passage.
This measure, principally sponsored by Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), would place an annual limit of 75,000 square feet on new commercial development in Santa Monica for the next 15 years.
In general, the proposed initiative would exempt schools, hospitals, religious buildings, and “other community-serving development” from the 75,000-sqare-foot limit, according to SMCLC, which says that the purpose of the initiative is to “fight overdevelopment and traffic congestion in Santa Monica.”
More specifically, “commercial development” subject to the 75,000-square-foot limit is defined to exclude “residential, parking, schools, child or adult day care facilities, hospitals, rest homes, residential care facilities for the elderly, places of worship, government facilities, or neighborhood-serving goods, services, or retail uses that are located on the ground floor of an affordable housing development in which one hundred percent of the dwelling units are designated for affordable housing in a manner approved by the City.”
The measure contains provisions for calculating floor area, credits for replacement/remodel projects, the borrowing of allocations from future years, and transitional considerations.
The ballot argument in favor of Proposition T is signed by City Councilmember Kevin McKeown, SMCLC co-chair Diana Gordon, and City Council candidate and Ocean Park Association president Ted Winterer, among others. Gordon says that the City’s consultants have indicated that the measure would result in a 40 percent reduction in commercial development, and she argues that this would mean a significant reduction in traffic.
Gordon further argues that the mixed use developments (residential units over ground floor commercial) favored by the current draft of the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE) of the City’s General Plan are actually traffic magnets, and that the LUCE plan to build “activity centers” of such mixed use developments in the hope that mass transit such as the Expo Line will follow is “putting the cart before the horse” and represents a “failed planning tool.” “If you’re going to talk about mixed use housing,” she says, “it must be affordable housing” so that people now commuting into Santa Monica for work can live here. (Mixed use with 100 percent affordable housing is exempt under the measure.)
Critics of the initiative have argued that the inflexible limit is unreasonable, particularly at this time when LUCE is still under development. The ballot argument in opposition to Proposition T is signed by City Councilmember Pam O’Connor, former mayor Judy Abdo, School Board president Oscar de la Torre, and representatives of the police officers association and firefighters local.
Abdo, who co-chairs the Save Our City campaign organized to oppose Proposition T and who is a steering committee member of SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights) – though SMRR itself has taken no position on the measure – says she opposes Proposition T because it says it is about traffic but it does nothing to fix traffic and because it directs development into the neighborhoods and puts renters at risk.
“It is not about traffic,” she says, “it’s about limiting commercial development, which makes it about encouraging residential development, and it directs that development into our neighborhoods rather than into commercial corridors, downtown, and other areas where there can be mixed use developments.”
This measure amends the City’s existing User Utility Tax (UUT) on telecommunications services, which was first adopted in 1969. The current tax rate of 10 percent would not be changed. This UUT generated approximately $12 million in fiscal year 2007-2008, and these funds are deposited into the City’s general fund.
The Impartial Analysis Prepared by the City Attorney states: “Since the existing law was written nearly 40 years ago, its language does not match the many changes in communication services and technology that have occurred since 1969. … The existing UUT relies for its interpretation and enforcement on definitions and policies created over many years under the Federal Excise Tax. This federal law was repealed two years ago. The repeal complicates interpretation and enforcement of the existing UUT.
“Also, since the repeal, some California cities, with utility tax ordinances almost identical to [Santa Monica’s], have been sued because the repeal led to disputes on how to apply these cities’ laws to current communications services and technology.” Proposition SM would add various definitions to the UUT, including a definition of “telecommunications services,” and remove all references to the Federal Excise Tax.
The ballot argument in favor of Proposition SM is signed by City Councilmembers Bob Holbrook and Pam O’Connor, former mayor and SMRR co-founder Dennis Zane, and representatives of the police officers’ and firefighters’ associations.
City Manager Lamont Ewell says there are two reasons to support the measure – a question of fairness so that all telecommunications users are treated equally regardless of technology, and to protect the City from the risk of litigation so that this revenue source is not placed in jeopardy. He says the proposal would extend the UUT to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), text messaging, and private communications services such as T1 business lines and paging; it would not tax Internet access, satellite TV, or music and free video downloads such as YouTube. Cell phones are already covered by the existing UUT.
Ewell Stresses that Proposition SM would maintain existing protections which exempt low-income seniors and disabled residents from paying the UUT.
The ballot argument against the measure is signed by Internet technology consultant Patrick Flanagan, tenant Priya Balachandran, and homeowner Art P. Casillas, among others. Visual artist Peter Tigler, speaking on behalf of those opposed to the measure, argued that the application of the tax is broader than stated by Ewell and would extend to all data no matter how transferred. To the extent that it might not, he said the amendment fails to achieve its stated goal of fairness.
Proponents of the measure stress that tax revenues are needed to fund police, fire, and paramedic services and programs in education, recreation, and the environment. Opponents say the revenues go to “repainting police cars a different color scheme, hiring crony consultants, cutting down healthy trees and funding reports on panhandling.” The fact of the matter is that the revenues go into the City’s general fund and so are used – in one way or another – for everything the City spends money on from that general fund.