Montebello Voters Face Decision on Sales Tax Hike

October 19, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

Unregistered Montebello residents have until Oct. 23 to register for the city’s special election on Nov. 7, an election that could result in an increase in the city sales tax.

After first unanimously declaring a financial emergency, the Montebello City Council in May voted to hold the special election and ask voters to approve an increase the city’s sales tax rate as a way to bring new revenue to the cash-strapped city.

Under Proposition 218, passed by voters in 1996, city governments are prohibited from placing new tax measures on the ballot in General Election years unless councilmembers first unanimously declare a fiscal emergency — a statement that the issue can’t wait until the city’s next regularly scheduled election.WEb-Feature MTB sales tax

The city wanted to raise the sales tax by one percent but had to lower its ask to .75 percent to comply with the state’s 10.25 percent sales tax cap. County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax hike in March to pay for services for the homeless that went into effect on Oct. 1, pushing Montebello’s proposed one percent hike over the state cap.

City officials had projected $9 million in annual new revenue if Measure S passes, but that forecast has now been lowered to $6.75 million, still a hefty sum for the financially flailing city, which despite instituting a hiring freeze, years of no pay raises for employees and other budget-tightening measures, still faces a $3.2 million deficit.

A 47-page staff report presented last November to the council puts the cost for Montebello’s long-term and immediate needs at $212 million, including $178 million in deferred maintenance costs.

Montebello’s projected revenues fall far short of the amount needed and the city has run out of one-time options such as selling off city-owned assets to shore up the impending financial crisis, according to the city council.

The selling-off of cell tower sites and other city land was used in the last two fiscal year budget cycles to balance city coffers, but not before raising public outrage. Other efforts to raise revenue have failed amid voter mistrust of how the council and city staff spend revenue and award city contracts.

While council members did show some reluctance to holding the special election and asking voters to raise the sales tax, they ultimately decided it was the best path to stave off a future financial crisis, which could worsen if the city waited until its next regularly scheduled election in November 2018 to ask voters to approve new revenue raising taxes.

The city says the added revenue will help pay for things like street repairs and filling pot holes, park programs and maintenance, senior services and public safety programs.

Montebello resident Sylvia Solis supports raising the sales tax as a way to increase the size of the city’s police department and improve response times, telling EGP it’s ridiculous how long residents have to wait for the police to provide assistance.

“I wait 40 minutes, sometimes an hour,” the 25-year resident of Montebello said. “I’ve called to report suspicious activity, what if it’s a real emergency,” she complained.

According to the staff report, more revenue is needed for the city’s police and fire departments. The police department needs $5.3 million to pay for 11 additional police officers and four part-time community service officers, and to make needed improvements to the police headquarters, while the fire department requires more than double that amount, according to the report.

The fire department is running $13.1 million short of what it needs to fully staff the department and adequately upgrade infrastructure, states the report, which cites the need to hire a deputy fire chief and deputy fire marshal, build a new fire station, and to purchase a new fire engine and aerial ladder truck.

The report also calls for more hiring and improvement of facilities in nearly every department in the city.

Lopez agrees there is a need for more revenue, but says she worries the added revenue will not be spent wisely.

Yvette Fimbres, a member of the watchdog group Montebello Activists To Clean House, or MATCH90640, also wants to see the city prosper, but opposes a sales tax increase as the way to get there. Like Lopez, she fears the council and city staff can’t be trusted to spend the revenue as intended.

The burden of fixing the council’s mismanagement of city revenue should not be placed on residents and visitors to Montebello, Fimbres told EGP.

She described the council’s spending as “fraudulent” and “questionable,” citing catered dinners at council meetings and travel to attend gatherings that do not benefit the city as unnecessary and wasteful.

Council members did not respond to EGP’s requests for comment, however, Councilman Jack Hadjinian defended the city’s effort to increase the sales tax to the Whittier Daily News, saying the staff report shows every department in the city is lacking in some area due to the city’s tight budget. He rejected another revenue raising option in the report, an increase in the utility user tax, as too much of a burden on residents and city businesses. On the other hand, the sales tax hike that would apply to residents as well as visitors to city, including at one of the city’s top sales tax generators, the Montebello Town Center.

Resident Linda Strong told EGP in an email that the council lacks integrity, pointing out the council’s vote to approve a settlement with developer Garfield Financial Corp. in January of this year.

Garfield Corp. had claimed that the city didn’t properly pay for street improvements for an affordable housing project contracted for through the city’s now defunct redevelopment agency.

Strong pointed out that city funds were used to defend Councilman Bill Molinari who was named along with the city in the developer’s claim, submitted multiple times over the years, but which the city said had no merit and the company never escalated to the level of a lawsuit.

“That vote was a gift of public funds,” contends Strong in her email. “It was a gift to a political supporter.”

Molinari, responding to this article, told EGP that just the opposite is true.

He said Garfield named him in their claim because he had repeatedly blocked their attempts to get money out of the city the developer was not owed. According to Molinari, Garfield Corp was hoping to force him to recuse himself from discussion of any potential settlement because he now had a conflict of interest.

“All the claims they made about me were unsubstantiated,” Molinari said, adding that credible, highly qualified legal experts investigated the developer’s allegations but found them without merit.

The company’s strategy did not work, he said, explaining he never recused himself.

Nonetheless, Fimbres says she does not believe the city is being transparent about the sales tax hike. She accused Montebello City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman of failing to provide an impartial analysis of the measure being pushed by the council and city staff. She also accused him of publishing misinformation on the projected tax increase and incoming revenues to the city.

“If this measure is passed, the city is in store for a lawsuit challenging the validity of this measure.” Fimbres said. “It’ll probably cost the city more money to defend themselves in court.”

“The city needs revenue, but we cannot trust the present council to do the right thing,” Fimbres said.

Alvarez-Glasman denies the ballot information is inaccurate, telling The Whittier Daily News that

“The law is crafted saying that (the increase) could be up to 1 percent.” Saying otherwise is “a fraud and incorrect,” he said.

Meanwhile, Montebello officials continue to defend the sales tax hike as necessary to meeting the city’s financial obligations and to providing public safety and other services in the city.

 

Updated 10/20/17 at 42 p.m.: Clarifies from earlier version that developer Garfield Corp. filed claims, not a lawsuit against Montebello and Councilman Bill Molinari.  Adds Molinari’s response to accusation that he had done something wrong and benefited from “a gift of public funds” to defend himself against those allegations;  adds response from city attorney to allegation that he is misleading the public about the sales tax hike.

 

Demanding Transparency, Activist Form ‘Watchdog’ Group

October 20, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

MONTEBELLO – There’s a new watchdog group in town and their demanding changes.

They sit in the front row at nearly every Montebello City Council meeting, keep a close eye on city business, read through agenda packets and regularly make public document requests, all in an attempt to hold their elected officials accountable.

Among their successes so far, getting the city to start live-streaming city council meetings. Now they’re trying to block efforts to allow marijuana-related businesses to open shop in their city, and keeping an eye on issues brewing in the Montebello Unified School District.

“We’re watching everything that is going on in our city,” says Kimberly Cobos, a spokesperson for Montebello Activists To Clean House, or MATCH9064

No strangers to city politics, the grassroots group’s members have spent years attending city council meetings and public hearings, often serving as Montebello’s most outspoken critics.

The activists haven’t always been on the same side of issues, but anger over the latest effort to allow marijuana related businesses to operate in the city led them to put aside their differences and work together. What they have in common is a strong interest in making the city more transparent and accountable to residents.

Montebello City Council meetings will now be streamed live online on the city’s website.

Montebello City Council meetings will now be streamed live online on the city’s website.

“We want our voice to be heard and we want to get residents involved,” Cobos told EGP about the collaboration, started in August.

Last week’s resignation of City Treasurer Charles Pell has added to their resolve. In their eyes, they’ve lost an ally who like them has been working to expose mismanagement and discrepancies in the city’s finances.

Pell, a federal prosecutor by trade, announced his resignation during the Oct. 12 council meeting. He cited an increase in his caseload as the reason for his departure. In the last year, Pell put the spotlight on a housing developer that owes the city $600,000, staff’s failure to collect rent on a city-owned property, and questionable practices in the city’s bidding process.

The city council will appoint Pell’s replacement. Cobos worries their choice may not be as willing to work hard on exposing the city’s financial failings.

Although the group is relatively new, MATCH90640 is already claiming a major victory in their fight to make the city more transparent. They claim the announcement last week that effective immediately all Montebello council meetings will be streamed live on the city’s website, is the direct result of pressure they put on City Clerk Irma Barajas to keep her campaign promise to ensure greater transparency in the city.

“Not many residents attend meetings, but now those who can’t make it can be kept up to speed with city issues” by viewing meetings online, MATCh90640 member Yvette Fimbres told EGP this week.

Members of MATCH90640 speak during the Oct. 12 Montebello Council Meeting.  (MATCH90640)

Members of MATCH90640 speak during the Oct. 12 Montebello Council Meeting. (MATCH90640)

The marijuana dispensary controversy that initially pulled the group together has not gone away, but is instead gaining steam. Residents packed city council chambers last week, where speaker after speaker demanded the council place a moratorium on all marijuana businesses within city limits.

“We’re not activists against personal use or medical use,” Linda Nicklas clarified. “What we don’t want are growers like the ones from Glendale opening businesses across the alley from Eastmont Intermediate,” she told council members, referring to an incident earlier this year when Montebello Police discovered nearly 1,400 marijuana plants in two commercial buildings located next door to the Montebello school.

According to Nicklas, all the residents she’s spoken to are opposed to allowing pot shops to open in the city.

Grant Pstikyan and the others circulating the petition to get an initiative on the ballot – which if passed would amend the City Code to allow and tax marijuana businesses in Montebello—are ready to set up shop in the city, Nicklas claims. The city’s zoning code currently prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries.

If you allow this measure to move forward, MATCH90640 will go door-to-door to inform residents of your decision, Nicklas promised council members.

“Come next election, everybody will get information about where you stood on this issue.”

The council has instructed staff to put discussion of a moratorium on marijuana businesses on its next meeting agenda. They say they plan to conduct a full review on the issue before deciding on a permanent amendment to the municipal code.

MATCH90640 told EGP their plans go beyond city hall, explaining they are also keeping a watchful eye on Montebello Unified; most of the city’s children attend District schools.

The group was at the Oct. 6 MUSD Board meeting to recruit members to their cause. While at the meeting, they learned about the conflict between the Montebello Teachers Association (MTA) and the District’s superintendent, Susanna Contreras Smith, who along with Chief Financial and Operations Officer Cleve Pell on Friday were placed on paid administrative leave Friday. The decision comes months following vote of no confidence by the teachers’ union, which asked the Board of Education to fire Smith.

Assistant Superintendent Anthony Martinez will serve as interim superintendent.

MATCH90640’s goal is to keep residents informed on issues in the city and they say they hope the community will come to them with their concerns. You don’t have to live in Montebello to join the group, membership is open to anyone with a child at a Montebello school, who does businesses in Montebello or plays sports at a Montebello park, according to Cobo.

“We want to help our community,” said Fimbres. “We’re bringing the voice of residents directly to the city council.”

 

Transparencia se Demanda, Activistas forman Grupo de Guardia

October 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

MONTEBELLO- Hay un nuevo grupo de control en la ciudad y ellos demandan cambios.

Se sientan en la primera fila de casi todas las reuniones del Consejo de la Ciudad de Montebello, siguen de cerca los desarrollos de negocio de la ciudad, leen paquetes de ordenes del día y regularmente solicitan documentos públicos, todo con el fin de exigir responsabilidad entre los oficiales electos.

Entre su éxito hasta el momento, se incluye el haber convencido a la ciudad a que trasmitan sus reuniones de consejo en vivo. Ahora están tratando de impedir los esfuerzos para permitir que los negocios relacionados con la marijuana se establezcan en su ciudad.

Kimberly Cobos, la portavoz de los Montebello Activists To Clean House o el MATCH90640, dice que el grupo está “vigilando todo lo que sucede en nuestra ciudad”.

Sin ser extraños a las políticas de la ciudad, los miembros del grupo de base han pasado años asistiendo a las reuniones de consejo de la ciudad y las audiencias públicas, seguidamente sirviendo como los más fervientes críticos de Montebello.

Los activistas no siempre han estado al mismo lado de los temas discutidos, pero furiosos sobre los esfuerzos recientes de permitir negocios relacionados con la marijuana en la ciudad, han decidido unirse. Lo que tienen más en común, dicen ellos, es un fuerte interés en traer mas transparencia y responsabilidad a Montebello.

“Queremos que nuestra voz se escuche y queremos involucrar a los residentes”, le dijo Cobos a EGP refiriéndose a la colaboración.

La resignación de Charles Pell, tesorero de la ciudad, de la semana pasada ha agregado más a su determinación. De su punto de vista, ellos han perdido a un aliado quien al igual que ellos ha estado trabajando para exponer la mala administración y las discrepancias de las finanzas de la ciudad.

Pell, un procurador federal por oficio, anunció su resignación durante la reunión del consejo el 12 de octubre. El mencionó el incremento en su carga de trabajo como la razón de su salida. Durante el año pasado, él puso el enfoque en un promotor de viviendas que le debe $600,000 a la ciudad y la falla del personal en colectar el arrendamiento de una propiedad de la ciudad. Además se enfocó en las practicas cuestionables en el proceso de licitación de Montebello.

El consejo de la ciudad nombrará al reemplazo de Pell. Sin embargo, Cobos teme que el repuesto no esté dispuesto a trabajar con el mismo fervor para exponer los fallos financieros.

Miembros de MATCH90640 hablan frente al consejo de la ciudad durante la reunión del 12 de octubre.  Foto: MATCH90640

Miembros de MATCH90640 hablan frente al consejo de la ciudad durante la reunión del 12 de octubre. Foto: MATCH90640

A pesar de que el grupo es relativamente nuevo, MATCH90640 ya cuenta con una gran victoria en su lucha de hacer a la ciudad más transparente. Ellos aseguran que el anuncio de la semana pasada respecto a la trasmisión en vivo de las reuniones del consejo, es un ejemplo. También es resultado directo de la presión que han puesto sobre la secretaria municipal, Irma Barajas de mantener sus promesas de campaña de asegurar mayor transparencia en la ciudad.

“No hay muchos residentes que asisten a las reuniones, pero ahora aquellos que no puedan llegar se pueden mantener al tanto de los temas” viendo las reuniones en el Internet, le dijo a EGP Yvette Fimbres, miembra del grupo MATCH90640, esta semana.

La controversia de los dispensarios médicos de marijuana que inicialmente unieron al grupo no ha cesado sino que sigue cobrando fuerza. Los residentes llenaron la Cámara Municipal del consejo la semana pasada, en donde orador tras orador exigió que el consejo suspenda a todos los negocios de marijuana dentro de los limites de la ciudad.

“No somos activistas en contra del uso personal o médico de la marijuana”, clarificó Linda Nicklas. “Lo que no queremos son cultivadores como los de Glendale que están abriendo negocios al otro lado del callejón de Eastmont Intermediate”, le dijo a los miembros del consejo. Ella se refería a un incidente a principios del año cuando la policía de Montebello descubrió casi 1,400 plantas de marijuana en dos edificios comerciales ubicados a la par de una escuela.

De acuerdo a Nicklas todos los residentes con los que ha platicado se oponen al abrir tiendas de la hierba en el vecindario.

Grant Pstikyan y los otros que están promoviendo la petición para agregar la iniciativa a la balota están listos para plantarse en la ciudad, dijo ella. La petición busca modificar el código de la ciudad para permitir y cobrar impuestos a negocios de marijuana en Montebello. Los códigos de zona actuales prohíben los dispensarios de marijuana.

Si permiten que esta medida siga, MATCH90640 ira de puerta en puerta para informarle a los residentes de su decisión, le prometió Nicklas a los miembros del consejo.

“Cuando llegué la próxima elección todos tendrán la información acerca de su posición en este tema”.

El consejo instruyó al personal a establecer una discusión de una moratoria acerca del tema de negocios de marijuana en su próxima agenda de reunión. El consejo planea en conducir una revisión completa del tema antes de decidir en una enmienda al código municipal.

MATCH90640 le contó sus planes a EGP de ir más aya de la municipalidad y quieren también vigilar al Distrito Unificado Escolar de Montebello (MUSD por sus siglas en inglés).

Miembros asistieron a la reunión del consejo de MUSD el 6 de octubre en donde intentaron reclutar más miembros para su causa. Durante la reunión, aprendieron acerca del conflicto entre la Asociación de Maestros de Montebello (MTA) y la superintendente del distrito, Susanna Contreras Smith. Ella junto con el Jefe Oficial de Finanzas y Operaciones, Cleve Pell fueron puestos en un permiso administrativo pagado el viernes. La decisión llega meses después que el MTA presentó un voto de falta de confianza, el cual pedía que el Consejo de Educación despidiera a Smith. Anthony Martínez, el superintendente auxiliar, servirá como superintendente temporal.

El objetivo de MATCH90640 es de mantener a los residentes informados acerca de temas relacionados con la ciudad y espera que la comunidad se acerque y exprese sus inquietudes. No tienen que vivir en Montebello para unirse al grupo, la membresía está abierta para todos aquellos con un hijo en el distrito escolar de Montebello, o a los que conduzcan negocios o jueguen deportes en el parque de la ciudad, de acuerdo a Cobo.

“Queremos ayudar a nuestra comunidad”, dijo Fimbres. “Estamos trayendo la voz de los residentes directamente al consejo”.

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