Sparks Fly As Council Hears Utility Tax Complaints

By Luke Phillips
Holtville City Council member Jerry Brittsan took the opportunity during the public comments portion of Monday’s council meeting to revive the debate on the city’s utility tax.
Brittsan has been on a personal crusade to remove the tax, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of the city’s operating budget, since last July.  But he hasn’t made much headway with the council.
“Since approximately the middle of July last year, I’ve been attempting to get some information to the council regarding a decision on the utility tax,” Brittsan said. “I specifically requested that it be agendized on the 14th of December. I was not afforded the agenda item tonight, so it is my intention to go the petition route. I need 52 names on a petition to create a ballot measure that would call for the stopping entirely of the utility tax by July 1.”
Newly-installed council member Mike Goodsell agreed that the issue needs to be discussed, but called on the council, and councilmember Brittsan, to take things slowly and carefully.
“Jerry may feel that there’s been a lack of traction on his issue,” Goodsell said, “and I would whole-heartedly jump in and try to help him with traction, but I wouldn’t want to see us jump off a cliff on this thing and find out after the fact that we couldn’t afford to do it very well. It would impact a lot of things, but to be fair to the voters we should probably consider where those impacts would be and weigh out the decision in a measured response rather than just doing away with it in July. He (Brittsan) deserves to have it on the agenda and it needs to be discussed.”
Mayor David Bradshaw didn’t rule out the possibility of cutting the utility tax, but made sure to remind the public that the tax break would come at a cost.
“If that’s what our public wants we can certainly do that,” Bradshaw said. “If we want to vote for less taxes I think that would be an easy vote, but we have to think about what we’re going to cut. We can either do layoffs or stricter code enforcement, or cut our public health and safety. There’s not really much you can go after. I do think we need to take a longer, harder look at it.”
Brittsan agreed that cutting certain services in the city would be a tough job, but he argued that the public simply can’t afford these extra services during the current economic downturn.
“Understandably we can’t afford it,” Brittsan said. “But this tax has been in place for 20 years. We’ve got people that are on fixed incomes, we’ve got senior citizens, we’ve got people on unemployment, we’ve got people on disability that are trying to scratch out a living. We’ve got businesses that are trying to scratch out a living and we’re imposing all kinds of things on them as far as parking and such, and then on top of that they’ve got to pay the utility tax on all their utilities. I don’t know about anybody else in this room, but I pay 30 to 40 dollars a month on utility taxes, and I’m on a fixed income. I think that it’s time that the city thought more of the residents than they do of spending this money.”
A large crowd was gathered in the council chambers Monday to watch the proceedings and one of them took the opportunity to speak in agreement with Brittsan. Shane Brady, owner of Holtville Mini Storage on Main Street, made his feelings clear to the council and says he has no sympathy for them.
“I told myself that I was going to keep my mouth shut, but I can’t do it,” Brady said. “They (the city) gave me three months to make a $780,000 improvement and my question to you is how does it feel? How does it feel to run a city that’s going to go bankrupt when they take the utility tax away? It’s a financial hardship, but you guys impose financial hardships through the city manager and the city planner on a regular basis to my business and other businesses in the community. How does it feel? How does it feel to come up and say we have no money? Because that’s what you guys did to me and the only way that I got you to stop was to get a lawyer. So I can understand your position about not putting a financial hardship on the city, but you guys, you city council people and our city manager and our city planner put financial hardship on our businesses. I come to one city council meeting and once I’m done with that council meeting, three weeks later I get a letter that says I’m no longer permitted in the city of Holtville, that I’m a nuisance to the residents of Holtville and I’m going to be fined $500 a day and six months in prison. You’ve got to be kidding me. So now we’re going to do away with this utility tax and I find no sympathy. Even though it’s going to hurt my business and other businesses, I don’t find any sympathy that it’s a hardship for the city. Turnaround is fair play I guess. Tit for tat. I don’t like to see it, but that’s the way I feel. I love Holtville, I invested my money in Holtville and I know today that since I spoke I’m going to get banged for it, I’m going to get in trouble, I’ll get another letter issued. I just opened Pandora’s Box. So you guys run a city without any money, because that’s what you’re doing to me, saying run a businesses without any money, because I’ve got $780,000 worth of upgrades to do. I guess that’s all I have to say.”
After a round of applause from the crowd, Mayor Bradshaw responded to Brady’s comments.
“To answer your question about how it feels, it feels like we’re a city in the state of California,” Bradshaw said. “I don’t know if you understand how the laws work, but we don’t impose jail time. These are state laws. Those aren’t our laws, they’re state laws. If you want to be a city and get money in California you have to comply with all these things. Those aren’t things that we sit around and think up.”
Brady responded in turn, saying “I would expect that in the small city of Holtville that sooner or later we’d take a look back at our state government and our federal government and say no more grant money. Because all that grant money has too many issues attached to it, too many regulations that come with it. I would say no we don’t want your money from the state, we don’t want your regulations, we don’t want your mandates, we don’t want your purse, we don’t want the money if there’s anything attached to it. “Goodsell pointed out that many of the regulations in the city are only guidelines from the state and are not mandated.
“Code enforcement is a choice of this council,” Goodsell said. “Don’t let anybody tell you different. It was my first indoctrination that I got when I met with the city manager. She turns out to be the bad guy, (city planner) Justina (Arce) turns out to be the bad guy, but we give them the direction to enforce these codes. We have a choice whether or not we’re going to go along with guidelines from the state. Not every city is going out there with the fervor that Holtville currently is with code enforcement. And that is well known by businessmen that have businesses in other cities in the valley. We don’t need that reputation to continue to the determent of business here.”
City Treasurer Pete Mellinger also weighed in on the issue and urged the council to move slowly.
“I have been a resident of this town now for 50 something years and I can assure you as your city treasurer that if we were to suddenly reduce and do away with the utility tax this year, or within the next two or three years, you will see a dramatic reduction in the things that are available in this city and it will not be able to recover any of the things that we’re getting used to that are good for the city,” Mellinger said. “As your city treasurer I want to emphasize that this sudden approach of starting a petition to do away with the tax is going to have a devastating effect upon the treasury of this city. I hope that you will think and look into it very closely before you do anything as drastic as that. I’m willing to look at it, but I can assure you, even before you look at it, that the current utility tax is the only thing that keeps this a decent city to live in and a safe city to live in. We need to be very careful how fast we move on this. Jerry seems to think that we’ve been moving to slow on this, but I think we need to move very, very slowly or we’ll have something happen here in Holtville that will be very detrimental to us all.”
The council eventually decided to bring the issue back as an information item at their January 24 meeting and directed City Manager Laura Fischer to bring them more information. Fischer pointed out that she had already provided the numbers on the utility tax, but said she would try to gather more details.
“Right now I’m hearing that you want information, but I don’t have your ultimate goal,” Fischer said. “If your ultimate goal is to eliminate the utility tax and for me to tell you what effect that’s going to have,  I could probably give you just a little more detail, but this is pretty much the information that you’ve been requesting.”
After the public comments portion of the meeting, a crowd of residents gathered outside of city hall and had a lot to say on the issue.
“I think we have bloated salaries,” said one man who refused to be identified because he fears reprisal from the city. “We have at least three people on the payroll that are making more than $100,000 a year.”
Another resident who also refused to give his name said that he thinks the city’s fire department is over-funded and is a prime target for cuts.
“I live across the street from the Fire Department and I see them driving around in their fleet of SUVs. I think we have more fire engines in this city than we do houses. I remember when the whole force used to be volunteers,” he said.
The same man also had some choice words for city manager Laura Fischer.
“I think we need to do a serious discussion, but without her sitting in there. We don’t need her and we don’t need her spite. If I stood up and gave you my name I’m sure she’d be over to fine us for something. It’s just a bunch of B.S. that they’ve pushed on us for 15 years.”