Anti-tax crusader Mark Dierolf shows up for a debate, but leaves his numbers at home.
Thursday, October 17, 2002
Mark Dierolf has yet to show how-in the real world, that is-Salinas can repeal its utility user''s tax and axe the $8 million a year in revenues it brings without cutting city-funded services like police, fire, libraries and parks.
But the truth is only a pesky detail, and it doesn''t stop Dierolf, who heads the Monterey County Libertarian party and who doesn''t like city government or taxes, from crusading to cut Salinas'' tax on electricity, water, cable TV and the like.
Dierolf, who authored Measure O, the Nov. 5 ballot initiative to repeal the utility tax, squared off last week at a Salinas Steinbeck Rotary debate against "No on O" activist Dennis Donohue, an ag industry executive.
Dierolf gave his usual introduction. He was raised and schooled in Salinas. He loves this town. He wants to have a family and raise kids in the community (note to interested single ladies).
"Now, the debate should not be whether people want tax relief," Dierolf said. "Everyone wants tax relief. The question should be, ''How can we maintain our service and reduce taxes?''"
He then ignored the issue of maintaining services and returned to the question he says voters shouldn''t argue about.
"How many think taxes are too high?" he queried, asking for a show of hands. Ten or so arms shot up.
"How many think taxes are too low?"
Only Donohue confessed that he did.
"One option that really hasn''t been discussed and needs to be discussed is how can we improve our services," Dierolf continued.
By slashing employees and programs?
"By introducing competition into city services," he said. "Lower cost, better customer service, if you have competition for city services. You win both ways.
"Of course the labor unions aren''t going to like it," he noted ominously.
Then again, labor unions and Dierolf were never close friends. The day before the Rotary debate, a coalition of union members and other Salinas residents officially announced their efforts to recall Dierolf from his elected position as a Hartnell College trustee because of his positions on Measure O and Measure H (Hartnell''s $131 million bond). Dierolf was the only Hartnell trustee to vote against Measure H.
The Rotary bell rang and it was Donohue''s turn to convince the Rotarians to vote no on O.
His message was simple: "Less taxes equals less services," he said.
"Let me point out two things. This argument is about the utility tax. Up or down. It''s not about efficiency. And related to that discussion, I can tell you that the financial linchpin that holds this community together is the utility tax."
Times are tight. The state''s fallen $24 billion short and is looking to local jurisdictions to help make up the difference.
In this scenario the utility tax is a local jurisdiction''s treasure chest. All monies earned from the utility tax are spent locally. There are no strings attached and not a dime goes to Sacramento.
Dierolf and his colleagues in the anti-tax camp have proffered a budget that claims to depict a streamlined city government, but the numbers don''t add up, Donohue said.
The report-put together by Dierolf''s colleague, perennial losing candidate Brett Landon-says Salinas has $94,660,500 to work with. The city''s General Fund budget is actually around $64 million. The report also projects extremely rosy prospects for sales and property tax growth, as well as motor vehicles fees.
"When they say nine percent [revenue growth] is real ''because we say it''s real,'' what they''re really telling you is that we will have a new auto center on top of the existing auto center," Donohue said. "They''re telling you, ''we will replicate every major retailer and will have the same stores'' revenues effective Nov. 5.'' What they won''t tell you is that same-month sales [comparing September 2001 and 2002] are down $700,000. Revenues are down.
"We are no more enamored with taxes than the next person," Donohue continued. "We are fighting to simply maintain a current level of services that are adequate at best."
Dierolf says he''s not a numbers guy so he steered clear of the financial details. He promised "lots of examples" of cities that have saved taxpayers'' money, and gave two names: Coral Springs, Fla., and Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Neither has much in common with Salinas.
Voters in neighboring Santa Cruz County repealed their utility tax last March, forcing elected officials to dump $10 million in jobs and programs. The cuts have, among other things, closed the Watsonville clinic''s pharmacy, reduced nurses who help at-risk babies, ended treatment for more than 300 drug abusers, eliminated 40 social services positions and closed the county''s career center.
In Salinas, however, Dierolf continues to beat the privatization drum.
"Privatization is something they should be looking at right now," he says. "The fact is, they can cut costs without cutting services. Really, the debate should be, ''what should we do with that savings? Where should it go?'' And I believe it should go to tax relief."
Salinas City Manager and Rotarian Dave Mora sat at a nearby table, listening to the debate. At the meeting''s close, a raffle drawing was held, a Rotary tradition. The winners each get a $15 jackpot.
"I need to get it," Mora grumbled under his breath. "So I can balance the budget." It didn''t happen.