El Cerrito Keeps Utility Tax Court Had Sent to Voters: By JAKOB SCHILLER

Friday November 05, 2004

Measure K, one of the most heated issues this year in El Cerrito, went the way most thought it would, passing with 6,427 votes, or 65.3 percent. 

The measure approves an already existing 8 percent utility tax that generates $2.2 million dollars for the city’s general fund, or roughly 12 percent. 

“We’re thrilled,” said Debbie Weeks, one of the leaders of the Yes on K campaign and the host of the campaign’s election party on Tuesday night. “We felt pretty strongly that we were going to do okay, but you can’t tell until the very end.” 

Most of those gathered at the party, including a group of firefighters from the nearby fire station, said they knew they were in the homestretch after the initial absentee ballots came in with well over 50 percent in favor of the measure.  

The tax was on the ballot because it was originally passed in 1991 by the City Council without being put up to the voters. At the time, the council believed that general taxes, or taxes that don’t fund one particular program, do not need voter approval. Subsequently, the California Supreme Court ruled otherwise, so the city was forced to put the tax on the ballot. 

According to city officials, if voters rejected the measure, city services that depend on the money such the police department, fire department, senior programs and swim center would have been scaled back.  

Those opposed to the measure, many of whom joined a campaign called El Cerritans for Tax Justice, said they knew the odds were against them but were still satisfied with the results. 

“We got beat, there is no denying it, but they did not get two-thirds,” said Brit Johnson, one of the leaders of the tax justice campaign and the husband of Gina Brusatori, a councilmember who just stepped down to comply with the city’s informal term limit rule. 

Two-thirds of the vote was not required and the tax passed with a simple majority, but Johnson said he was glad to see significant, even if not decisive, opposition to the measure. 

Opponents claimed the tax was poorly drafted and were asking voters to delay the tax for a subsequent election to allow for more citizen oversight. In the meantime they wanted the city to use some of its reserve funds to keep existing programs alive. 

They also claimed the city is guilty of fiscal mismanagement and could have reduced the tax rate below 8 percent if there was better management of the city budget. 

Johnson said the tax justice campaign was grossly out-funded by the Yes on K campaign so they felt good about receiving more than a third of the vote. He said that the vote also disproves the claim by tax supporters that the tax justice campaign represented only a small minority.