The city of Lindsay may finally escape the financial trap its been in for most of the last decade–but the margin is razor thin, and a few votes that could swing the decision remain to be counted.
On June 6, voters in the town of 13,000-plus just managed to approve Measure O, a 1% increase in the city’s sales tax intended to shore up the city’s sagging budget. The latest numbers from the Tulare County Registrar of Voters show the issue passing, but just barely. Ballots that remain uncounted could yet swing the
Low Voter Turnout
Lindsay has only 2,789 registered voters, 596 of whom voted in the single-issue election. The tally so far is 380 yes votes to 181 noes; however, 35 ballots remain unprocessed by the county, 22 of which are provisional.
The 380 yeses represent more than 67% of the vote, enough to meet the two-thirds requirement for a tax increase. But, if all 35 votes that have not been certified turn out to be noes, the count could drop under that margin.
That likelihood seems remote, however. Several of the ballots were merely unsigned, and those voters had until June 14 to correct their mistakes.
The 1% increase goes into effect in October, but the city’s budget won’t reflect the new source of revenue until 2018.
“We should start seeing some monies in January,” said Mayor Pam Kimball. “Our calculations, if they’re correct, and staff seems pretty confident about it, would be about $900,000 (annually).”
The city has regularly faced yearly deficits in the $500,000 range for most of the last decade. The city’s woes began when housing prices fell and the market collapsed, leaving it struggling to service its debt load. The new revenue will allow it to meet all its current obligations and start spending again to maintain services.
Those money worries were compounded recently by members of the city council who refused to consider tax increases to strengthen the city’s financial wherewithal. Then the makeup of the council changed with the resignation of hold-out Councilman Steven Mecum, allowing a new attitude.
Voters backed the idea, seeing the need as the city’s safety services struggled.
Municipalities plan their fiscal year each spring and present the annual budget for approval in June. This season, Lindsay’s finance department had to do double duty, creating two budgets to reflect both possible outcomes of the Measure O vote. Had voters rejected the measure, Lindsay would have been forced to slash its spending to a bare minimum and city employees could have faced layoffs.
“They were preparing two budgets, depending,” Kimball said. “They get to junk one. We’re pretty glad because they were going to be pretty drastic cuts. I think it was something like 13% across the board. It probably would have meant some people’s jobs.”
Lindsay already used furloughs to cut costs in 2015, raising the ire of city employees and their union, and prompting the original call for a sales-tax increase to make ends meet. No such extreme measures will be on the table when the council considers the 2017-18 budget on June 20.
The first splurge for Lindsay will be new vehicles and personnel at its combined fire, police and ambulance service, Kimball said. The council will start allocating the new funding with the new budget.
“It’s going to make up budget shortfalls first of all, but we do expect to get ahead, especially in public safety,” she said.
The unusual structure of Lindsay’s emergency services department may also be addressed in future, Kimball said. The department presents unusual situations that have been difficult to address, and a return to a standard split could ease operations.
“It’s become more problematic as we’ve lost officers who have cross training,” Kimball said. “Those are unusual to come by.”
Future spending, she said, will likely focus on maintaining city infrastructure, such as increasingly ragged roadways and contaminated wells.
‘Safe and Attractive’
The new tax–which is a standard measure for gaining revenue in the rest of Tulare County’s cities–has no end date, but it could be rescinded by a future vote if economic reality changes for Lindsay.
“There’s not a sunset. It could be retired sometime in the future,” Kimball said. “I don’t anticipate costs ever going down.”
The Mayor would like to see a renaissance of a sort in her city, which had become something of an attraction in the eastern county with the McDermont Field House, the city’s annual Chili Cook-Off and its Friday Night Market, all of which are still going concerns. Some of the new monies could end up promoting business and visitors to the town.
“We’re certainly hopeful now that we have a way to keep ourselves safe and attractive,” Kimball said. “We’ve worked hard to maintain things.”