MONTEREY — Residents on Monday questioned the need for the relative abundance of cash flowing into the police department while other services are being dramatically cut, and at the same time encouraged officials to jack up the city’s hotel tax to offset some of the cuts.
Heading into Tuesday night’s city council meeting, City Manager Hans Uslar hosted a virtual town hall meeting to allow residents to comment on a budget reduction plan to meet a $31 million shortfall over a two-year budget cycle.
The plan calls for department-wide budget cuts, including severe cuts to the library, recreation and museums. A fledgling activist group called Community Before Cops had several members call in to the town hall to question the fairness of the budget cuts, some of whom are former employees of the city.
Elizabeth Schrier, a medical student at UC San Francisco who is from Monterey, asked Uslar why he isn’t looking at the police department for more cuts, noting that the library, museum and recreation departments are all cut by roughly 60% each, but that the police department is only contributing 8% in cost reduction.
She also questioned why some 42 people lost their jobs at the library, recreation department and museums — services she deemed as important as police — while the police department suffered no layoffs.
In answering her questions, Uslar said the library, museums and sports center all had to close because of COVID-19 induced shelter-in-place orders so it didn’t “make sense to have a staffing level for departments that aren’t serving anyone.”
As for the police department budget, Uslar said that public safety is the No. 1 priority because that is what the community and the city council deemed most important. The department has seen cuts in the form of eliminating programs like one that served the homeless population.
Jeff Noven, also a member of the new activist group, asked how the city could justify raising the library budget by 18% from 2005 until today while the police department’s budget has ballooned by 77% during the same period.
“Police are being funded at the expense of critical social services,” Noven said. “People are outraged over the police committing flagrant acts of misinterpreting the public trust.”
Uslar reminded Noven that it is elected officials who set spending priorities and that the large increase between 2005 and today is because the police had been underfunded dating back to 1997. It was the public, he said, who wanted more traffic enforcement in the city, which required bringing on more officers.
“It’s the community that decides how to allocate taxpayer dollars,” Uslar said. “Our job is to reflect what the community wants,” and that is done through elected council members.
There were mentions about the police behavior in Minneapolis that ended in the homicide of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a police officer while other officers stood by and watched. The killing has spawned several days of rioting and demonstrations, including peaceful protests in Monterey and Seaside.
Uslar seemed to take umbrage at any suggestion that Monterey Police are anything like what has been seen in Minneapolis.
“Don’t confuse a national topic with a local topic,” he said. “Our police chief immediately condemned what we were seeing.”
Some other callers wanted to know about raising the hotel tax to help offset the budget losses. Currently, the hotel tax, also called a transient occupancy tax, stands at 10%. City staff is proposing to raise it to 12% — more in line with other cities along the Peninsula. But with the precipitous drop in hotel guests, Uslar expects the hotel tax to fall to 2005 levels.
Several callers suggested the tax should be raised to the levels of other tourist destinations in the state, many of which are charging 14%. Hotel tax is a pass-through tax, meaning it is charged to hotel guests and simply collected by the hotel and then forwarded on to the city.
Uslar stressed that raising the hotel tax is not a way to address budget losses, and is not a part of the budget solutions that will be presented to the council Tuesday night.
“We can’t tax our way out of this situation,” he said. “We need to be a more cost-efficient city.”
In Monterey, certain hotels pay a different tax on top of the hotel tax to cover the cost of Conference Center upgrades. Hotels directly adjacent to the Conference Center — such as the Marriott and the Portola Hotel and Spa — collect an additional 4.1% that goes to servicing debt on the center renovation that was completed in late 2017.
Other “full-service” hotels such as the Hyatt Regency Monterey pay a 2.1% tax, also for the conference center, while other smaller hotels in the city pay an even small amount.
Other concerns and suggestions expressed by residents Monday night included:
- Charging higher fees on services like the Sports Center. Uslar said to do so would prevent some lower-income residents from using the services.
- Have a staggered fee structure so residents pay a lower fee than out-of-town visitors.
- Diversify the city’s economic base to be less dependent on the hospitality industry.
- Get a grip on the overtime being paid to firefighters, which is costing the city more than $2 million a year.
- Sell some of the city’s assets such as buildings and land to offset some of the budget losses.