Barring a meteor strike, Stockton’s biggest challenge in 2023 likely will be hiring enough police — a perennial problem due in part to a tax that is supposed to fund 120 cops but never does.
The need for police in Stockton is as clear as Evian water. The tax issue, on the other hand, is so complex it’s like a prism: different people gazing into it see different things.
“It has established a safer city,” said Stockton City Manager Harry Black.
“It was a flimflam,” said Dean Andal, who led the campaign opposing Measure A, the 2013 ballot measure seeking a ¾-cent sales tax hike.
Measure A touted 120 more cops. It would increase the number of sworn officers to 485. Almost 10 years later, the number stands at 376—109 short of the promised 120.
And that’s after the city gave police an 18% raise.
So, is Measure A fundamentally dysfunctional? Have leaders pulled a fast one? Is there some explanation in the weeds? It’d be nice to know, since Measure A comes up for renewal in 2023.
Here’s the background: Measure A backers said the tax would add 120 cops; fund violence-prevention programs; enable the city to recover from its 2012 bankruptcy; pay “critical” expenses; and, in 10 years, “sunset” if no longer needed.
“Don’t Trust Them,” was the opponents’ slogan. They warned that Measure A was a general, as opposed to a restricted, tax: city officials could spend revenues any damn way they pleased.
As evidence of the city’s broken promises, they introduced a previous tax, Measure W, which promised 45 police officers but delivered 24, though the city keeps collecting 100% of the tax.
They also pointed to a worrisome provision allowing the Council, not voters, to renew the Measure A tax before it expires.
To bolster trust, the city promised annual Measure A audits. Backers also paired A with “non-binding advisory” Measure B, which allowed voters to say if they wanted 65% spent on law enforcement, 35% on bankruptcy and city services.
They did. Voters, worried by budget cuts, by police layoffs and police quitting, and by soaring crime rates that followed, passed Measure A with 52.02% and B by even more, 59.67%.
Over the ensuing decade, the city at times ballparked 485 cops, such as in 2018 when they reached 470 — fulfilling, practically speaking, their promise, given standard organizational churn.
But such times never lasted. The city never hit 485 once. Currently it is so far below it is almost as if Measure A never passed.
Except, of course, City Hall keeps collecting the tax.
“They’ve collected every single dollar of Measure A tax, even more than they projected, and they fall further and further behind,” said Ned Leiba, a Certified Public Accountant who served four years on the Measure A Citizens’ Advisory Committee.
The state sales tax rate is 7.25%. California allows local jurisdictions to add taxes up to 9%. Stocktonians pay that statewide high. City Hall rakes in at least $28 million a year.
When any of the 485 budgeted police positions are vacant, the unused revenue — tens of millions — goes into the General Fund. This is where it gets controversial. Critics like Leiba and Andal allege the city uses the money as a slush fund.
“In my early stages of Stockton politics, I used to think, well, they’re really trying (to hire police), and it didn’t work out,” Andal said. “But city managers always know what they’re doing. They’re building the city’s core revenue. They never intend to keep the police force at that strength, and they never do.”
The city uses the money to pay for increased pension costs, Andal alleged.
And to pay for the new City Hall, Leiba added. Leiba alleged city officials diverted $90 million of Measure A money to renovate the Waterfront Towers as project overruns tripled costs.
City Manager Black disputed that figure. He said Measure A funds are being used as intended. The money to hire cops is in the bank, he said. The problem is the hiring — there’s almost nobody out there to hire.
He factored in retirements, the pandemic, other cities that pay more. “Add on top of that the dynamics of the George Floyd situation. That created an extreme condition … an unprecedented contraction of the labor market.”
Okay, there are headwinds, granted. But the cultural shift after the George Floyd killing was in 2020. The Covid-19 outbreak in 2019. Measure A has been in effect since 2014.
“Prior to the pandemic, prior to George Floyd, could the city have done a better job at recruitment?” Black asked. “I don’t know.”
Are all cities like this? I checked with Modesto. Modesto budgets 210 police positions. It’s in the same labor market. It currently is staffed at 189 — 90%, compared to Stockton’s 77.5%.
An unscientific sample, admittedly.
Measure A admits such divergent views because it is not audited by a CPA narrowly focused on A’s revenue. The city contends it keeps its promise to audit by its annual audit of all city finances. Even though that audit does not track Measure A money through the pipeline.
It cannot, Black said. Once Measure A money slips into the General Fund it becomes fungible. “You cannot audit a component of the (General) Fund. You can only audit the fund itself.”
How convenient, Leiba said. “They want money without the accountability for the promises that they made. They do not want accountability for Measure A funds because it will box them in.”
To be fair, Measure A has funded more police — far from the promised amount, but more. It pays for the Office of Violence Prevention which, when functioning well, reduces gang violence. The 35% going to city coffers helps keep Stockton fiscally stable.
In March, Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln said Measure A helped the city weather the pandemic recession.
“That’s what sustained us, it really has,” Lincoln said, “the changes that were made a little over a decade ago in diversifying how we capture revenues in our city.”
That said, Measure A may satisfy officials, but I doubt it satisfies voters who pay higher taxes for cops that never materialize.
Yet despite its shortcomings and opacity, Measure A will likely be renewed by the Council sometime in 2023.
“They’ll endlessly renew,” Andal said. “Those were all contrivances to get it passed.”
Maybe the city’s just caught between a rock and a hard place. Obliged to hire, unable to hire. Bad optics from bad luck. But was gumming up Measure W just bad luck, too?
Andal had a question. “If, for whatever reason, they’re not spending the money for the intended purpose, why can’t it be returned to the taxpayers?”
Here’s another: Why can’t Measure A revenue be banked in a special account in a way that allows for auditing?
Black said focus on police numbers is misplaced. “We get hung up on, ‘We need more cops.’ It’s not how many cops you have, it’s what are you doing with the cops you have?”
In principle, sure. But in Measure A’s case, it’s precisely about how many.
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: email@example.com.