Mary England and George Gastil sound off in arguments for and against measure
By Miriam Raftery
September 26, 2019 (Lemon Grove) – Advocates of a ballot measure proposing a three-quarters of a cent sales tax increase argue that the measure will sweeten Lemon Grove, shoring up a structural budget deficit to fund city services wanted by residents, such as parks, road repairs, and improving public safety.
But former Lemon Grove Councilwoman Mary England, also president of the Chamber of Commerce in neighboring La Mesa, is sour on the idea.
Both England, who opposes the ballot measure dubbed the “Lemon Grove Security Petition,” and former Councilman George Gastil, a leader of the citizens’ group advocating for the petition, agree that the city has had a structural deficit for years, with a budget that’s nearly entirely consumed by rising police and fire protection services. But they disagree sharply on solutions.
“Is the only way to `dig out of the financial hole’ that the City of Lemon Grove continues to wallow in, a sales tax increase?” England asked in a memo to Councilmembers back in July 2018, when Council considered but ultimately rejected a smaller sales tax hike. “Is the only way to try and survive…by placing the burden of the rising labor costs and pension costs on the backs of the local business community, the citizens of Lemon Grove and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren for the next 20 years?” she asked, noting that the city has a high poverty rate. “Will the proposed increased sales tax attract the consumer to Lemon Grove, who currently has a meager selection of goods and services to purchase within this city?”
In a series of other memos to the city, letters published in local media and talking points opposing the initiative, England has noted that the downtown is blighted, that Lemon Grove lacks high-sales tax generators such as shopping malls and tourism destinations. She contends that even if a sales tax increase passes, it may not be enough to solve the city’s financial problems. She also blames the current Council and Mayor for not slashing spending and for actions of two officials that led to a lawsuit pending against the city.
England wants to see the city eliminate its assistant city manager,outsource the human relations director job to the private sector, and cut some staff to part-time. She believes the city should outreach to businesses and realtors, consider selling surplus land, and research disincorporation, or ceasing to become a city and reverting back to county control, as an option.
Gastil fires back, “I am pretty sure National City and EL Cajon have high rates of poverty, and they have passed sales taxes that benefit their city residents.” He adds, “The poor pay a small proportion of the money collected by sales taxes but they get a large proportion of the benefit…Who suffers most when there are budget cuts? Older residents are most likely to call our emergency services and low income residents are most likely to need protection provided by the Sheriff. Families with young children have the most need for parks.”
He notes that Lemon Grove does have Home Depot, three major grocery stores and other businesses that generate sales tax. “The city estimates that a ¾ cent tax would generate 2.9 million each year. We believe businesses benefit from having a strong city,” Gastil says, noting that those services include law enforcement, street cleaning, landscaping, park maintenance and more. “Could we do better? Yes, we could, with more stable funding.”
He says staff cuts are not feasible because “all of our staff are stretched to the limit” and about a third were laid off in the recession; most of those jobs were never restored. “Many of our city staff are doing what would be two or three jobs in some other cities…not only are our city staff essential, they are among the hardest working and most effective people you could find in any city.”
Gastil says selling surplus land would do little to help. “I think most residents would agree that what little land our city has should be used to benefit the public,” he says.
As for concerns over specific City Council members or a perceived leadership deficit, he says, “They work for us. If they don’t do a good job we can replace them.”
Disincorporating would be a long process and Gastil contends that a sales tax increase is needed to fill the budget gap even short-term should disincorporation ultimately occur. (The sales tax measure has no sunset provision, so would continue indefinitely.) He says former city manager Graham Mitchell went over disincorporation details with the prior Council.
Gastil acknowledges that a sales tax measure is only part of a larger solution. “We also need to work on economic development to attract more sales tax generating businesses and more customers for those businesses.”
England, however, has voiced skepticism over whether quality businesses would want to move in given vacant storefronts and blighted areas in need of clean-up. She notes that La Mesa has opened a historic number of restaurants in the past year, while Lemon Grove has failed to attract new businesses.
Another option could be to attract higher income residents through newer housing to bring in property tax revenues, while being careful not to lose Lemon Grove’s reputation as a relatively affordable city, Gastil said, adding, “I think I speak for most residents when I say we need a balance.”
He says many business owners “have participated in the discussions” with the Mayor and some councilmembers, though Gastil is not currently on the council. But he predicts if the measure qualifies for the ballot, “I am sure many business owners will support us,” noting that some revenues could be used to help make the area more desirable for businesses. “Business were a key factor in the creation of this city, and they will be a key factor in keeping it going,” he predicts
If the sales tax measure fails, Gastil says, “a combination of two things would happen; cuts in public safety and cuts in other parts of the budget..”
While the long-term future for Lemon Grove remains uncertain, Gastil concludes, “We can say this much for sure: a ¾ cent sales tax would put us in a much stronger position to take on our challenges!”