With budget problems continuing to put a strain on the smallest of the four East County cities, the Lemon Grove City Council last week took a step toward trying to stop the financial bleeding.
Plans are now in place for the City Council to start a formal discussion about putting a one-cent sales tax before the voters next year.
The tax talk came at a special goal-setting workshop in which four of the city’s top priorities from the 2018-19 fiscal year were discussed: diversifying Lemon Grove’s revenue; community life; public safety and homelessness; and public streets and sidewalks.
Although only Mayor Racquel Vasquez and City Council members Jerry Jones and Jennifer Mendoza were present – David Arambula and Matt Mendoza were absent – the three agreed that something needs to be done to help residents and businesses. About a dozen residents were also in attendance, along with some city personnel.
While the talk is only preliminary and more dialogue between city staff, the council and public will be scheduled in the next month, a majority of the elected officials appear to favor asking residents to approve a tax measure.
“The structural deficit has to be answered,” Jones said before announcing that he was in favor of a one-percent tax on goods in the city.
Jones has typically led the charge against tax measures for Lemon Grove, but said he was concerned that if the city doesn’t do something to help its sagging finances, it might have to disincorporate.
In an email sent to constituents on May 31, he wrote, “Leading or participating in a tax drive goes completely against my nature, but Lemon Grove has always been my first priority.” He told the City Council he thinks a “full 1-cent tax (is) needed to reverse our current course” and offered to lead the charge in campaigning for the tax.
Last July, in need of a super majority of four of five council members to reach a consensus on a November 2018 ballot measure for a half-cent sales tax, Jones and Mendoza voted no. Mayor Vasquez said that if the city had put it on last year’s ballot and it had gotten voters’ OK, Lemon Grove would have reaped nearly $2 million.
Jones said the money raised could be put into law enforcement and “an increase in our public utilities personnel relative to cleaning up the city” to help lay the foundation to improve Lemon Grove’s image and build the city’s sagging economic development.
“We will never improve our business environment until we clean up our downtown and our image,” Jones said.
Lemon Grove right now has one of the lowest sales tax rates in the county at 7.75 percent, along with Santee. El Cajon’s is 8.25 percent, La Mesa 8.5 percent.
City Manager Lydia Romero said Lemon Grove will “likely avoid a deficit” by the end of this fiscal year thanks to departments trimming their budgets.
“The anticipated deficit is not expected to happen,” Finance Director Molly Brennan said. “We’re probably going to break even as long as no emergencies happen in the next few weeks.”
But in the next breath, Brennan warned that a $426,000-plus deficit is projected for fiscal year 2019-20.
The meeting also allowed Romero and city staff to share some good news about work this past fiscal year in Lemon Grove. Among them:
- 900 potholes were repaired
- 238 graffiti tags were removed
- The city adopted a tobacco retailers licensing program
- The Lemon Grove Community Garden got going
- A new park ranger position was made permanent
- The city made further progress on working on regional homeless issues
- The Big Lemon got a face lift
The City Council also said it was going to look again at the possibility of establishing a tax on gross receipts from marijuana dispensaries, which the City Council also nixed a year ago.
In November 2016, Lemon Grove voters passed Proposition V, requiring the city to update municipal codes and create a permit process. The measure authorizes and regulates dispensaries, and the cultivating and manufacturing of medical marijuana. As of mid-2019, no legal cannabis business has opened in the city.
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