A group of concerned Lemon Grove residents are trying to help dig the city out of a deep financial hole.
Former Lemon Grove City Councilman George Gastil and five other residents are the drivers behind a citizen-led effort to put a three-quarter-cent sales tax measure on the March 2020 election ballot.
“Vote Yes for the Lemon Grove Tax” has publicly noticed its intent and filed for the inclusion of the initiative with the Political Reform Division within the Secretary of State’s office.
“Vote Yes” estimates that a new sales tax would generate about $3 million annually in new revenue for the city’s General Fund. The group’s public notice says the money could be used for all allowable purposes, including public safety, recreation services and homeless services.
“If people want the fire department and the sheriff’s department to be able to help them when they need it, we have to find a way to pay because that’s where most of the city’s revenue goes,” Gastil said. “If people want programs at the rec center and to keep the parks clean, these things cost money.”
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.
Gastil said the petitioners are seeking 1,489 signatures — 10 percent of the city’s registered voters — to get the measure on the ballot.
Lemon Grove has been struggling financially for many years, but was able to break even in 2019. The future prognosis for Lemon Grove’s finances, however, is souring.
Finance Director Molly Brennan says that the city is looking at a more than $400,000 deficit at the end of 2020, with nearly an $800,000 deficit in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The city is projected to have a nearly $1.2 million budget deficit at the end of 2021-22.
“Lemon Grove needs this sales tax,” said Gastil, who was on the City Council from 2008-16 and is eyeing another run for a seat next year. “I survived two budget crises when I was on the city council and I really don’t want to see another.”
At a special study session about options for a voter-approved tax, all five City Council members agreed that the city needed to get behind the citizen-driven proposal.
In 2018, the City Council failed to reach consensus on two ballot measures that could have raised much-needed revenue for the city. One was a half-cent sales tax increase, from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent; the other measure would have hiked business license fees and established a tax on gross receipts from marijuana dispensaries.
Both measures needed a super majority of four of the five council members to pass. Both fell short by 3-2 votes, with City Councilmen Jerry Jones and Matt Mendoza voting no.
Lemon Grove Mayor Racquel Vasquez and Councilwoman Jennifer Mendoza are not part of the “Yes” group but have offered their support, Gastil said.
“All five of us on the council weighed in and felt that this is something that needed to happen,” Mendoza said. “My feeling is that without an infusion of cash that the city is going to keep falling further and further behind. We got lucky last year, we broke even without dipping into our reserves. But it is projected we will dip into them by the end of 2020.
“This is definitely necessary but it’s not going to save Lemon Grove indefinitely. Without more businesses, without more tax-producing businesses coming to Lemon Grove, we are going to have a hard time.”
Mendoza said the council agreed that money from the tax would need to be spent on keeping the city clean, law enforcement, finding matching grants for more sidewalks and improving city parking lots.
“We also need to find someone devoted to getting grants for the city,” she said. “And someone who’s just exclusively doing economic development. Something like maybe putting a parcel together to have a nice hotel in Lemon Grove… things we need so we have a future as a city.”
The drafters of the initiative also said as part of the tax, the city will need to hire an independent auditing firm to analyze the impact of the sales tax and review the collection and spending of sales tax revenues, and report to the public and City Council. It also said a citizen’s oversight board would be needed for the sales tax plan.
City Manager Lydia Romero said the city has a “long laundry list” of things the community has been asking for.
“This restores my faith in this community,” Romero said. “This grass-roots group is saying they want to see this city be a success, to survive and thrive for another 40 years.”
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