Measure O defeated in Apple Valley (November 16, 2020)

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed one percent sales tax that would have raised money for community services, so town officials must decide on some difficult budget cuts. Some have already been announced and nothing is sacred, according to officials.

Apple Valley is scrambling for money.

Voters in the High Desert town overwhelming rejected Measure O, a one percent sales tax measure that, had it been approved, would have raised between $6 million and $7 million a year, according to the town’s estimates.

That revenue would have gone into Apple Valley’s general fund, eventually to be spent on a variety of community services. Mostly it would have gone toward hiring more police officers and firefighters, a pressing need at the moment for the town of 73,500.

But Apple Valley residents took a pass on Measure O.

“The question before the community was whether or not they would support an increase in the local sales tax rate to raise additional revenues needed for rising costs of police, parks, and other town services,” said Town Manager Doug Robertson in a statement posted on Apple Valley’s website three days after Measure O was rejected.

“The response was a resounding no.”

When the votes from all 63 of Apple Valley’s precincts were counted, the final tally was 66 percent against the initiative and 34 percent in favor, according to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters.

In raw votes, the numbers were 14,244 against and 7,671 in favor, even though Measure O would have cost the average Apple Valley family only $35 to $50 a year, according to Mayor Scott Nassif.

That’s about as strong a rebuke possible, Nassif admitted.

“Tax hikes are never easy, even in the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times,” said Nassif, a proponent of Measure O. “Maybe it was the wrong time to ask for one.”

Besides being a vehicle to raise money for community services, Apple Valley officials tried to sell the initiative as a way to protect property values and improve the quality of life. It was endorsed by San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, the Sheriff’s Employee’s Benefit Association, and the Apple Valley Fire Protection District Board, among other community groups, to no avail.

Now, Apple Valley must cut $4.5 million of its 2021-2022 fiscal year budget, then look for more services to cut in the next few years.

Apple Valley’s current operating expenses are about $35.5 million a year, including $10.7 million for employee compensation.

As if to show how much the revenue Measure O would have generated was needed, the website statement announced immediate cuts to several services in order to avoid a severe budget deficit.

After Thanksgiving, the town will close the aquatics center, the recreation department’s distance-learning day camp, and the after-school activities program. The latter is paid for by Apple Valley and operated by the town and the Apple Valley Unified School District, but it will not appear during the current school year.

Three positions that were held vacant pending the outcome of the Nov. 3 vote will not be filled, and there will be a hiring freeze at town hall “for the foreseeable future.”

Other possible cuts include temporary closure of the Apple Valley Golf Course which could save the town up to $500,000 per budget year and a reduction in the number of sheriff’s department staff.

Apple Valley contracts with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for about 50 sheriff’s department deputies a year. Up to four of those positions might be eliminated, according to Nassif.

“Everything is on the table,” Nassif said.

Apple Valley saw its law enforcement budget rise from $14 million to $15.5 million last year. That number is expected to grow to $16.5 million next year and to nearly $20 million by 2024.

Cuts to law enforcement could save the town $1.5 million, a substantial number, but they would be the most difficult to make.

“Law enforcement is one of the core services we provide, along with maintaining roads, and it’s the one thing you never want to cut,” Nassif said. “When you cut law enforcement, it feels like you’re going backward instead of forward.”

During the Nov. 10 council meeting, one week after Measure O’s defeat, Nassif and his four fellow town council members discussed forming a blue-ribbon committee of Apple Valley residents, elected officials, and members of the local business community. That group will help the council identify what services might be cut.

“The idea is to give us some guidance and point us in the right direction, because it’s not going to be easy to decide what to cut,” Nassif said.

The citizens advisory committee is expected to be formed at the council’s next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 8. It could not be formed at the last meeting because the proposal was not on the council agenda.

The group’s makeup has not been determined, but Nassif said he will probably recommend a 10-member committee that meets at least once a month.

One Apple Valley resident said he was surprised by Measure O’s defeat.

“It didn’t amount to anything more than a cost-of-living increase, which is something I think everyone should have,” said Bob Tinsley, a member of the planning commission and a town resident since 1973. “But a lot of people don’t like taxes no matter what they’re for.”

Tinsley declined to speculate on what services might be cut but said closing the golf course “wouldn’t be popular” based on some people he’s spoken with.

Measure O’s defeat was a setback for Apple Valley and one that a lot of people might not have seen coming, Tinsley said.

“You can tell it was big because, right away, they started talking about what they might cut,” Tinsley said. “I think a lot of [town officials] were certain it was going to pass, and they weren’t ready for this. Now they’re wondering what they should do.”

Source: IE Business Daily