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Sales tax combatting homelessness will be placed on March ballot

OW Staff Writer | 12/16/2016, midnight
The reconstituted Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan to put a quarter-cent sales tax to fund ...

The reconstituted Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan to put a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the fight against homelessness before voters in a special countywide election in March.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas teamed up with Supervisor Janice Hahn to recommend the tax, a measure Ridley-Thomas had pushed for in July, but failed to garner enough support to pass.

The board also considered a number of other funding alternatives for homeless services, including a millionaires’ tax, a parcel tax and a tax on marijuana, but could not agree on any option to put before voters in November.

Hundreds of people were in the audience to show support for the fight against homelessness, including billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Los Angeles City Councilmen Gil Cedillo, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Jose Huizar.

Organizers, who assembled a crowd outside on Temple Street before the board meeting, said more than 75 organizations, including community advocates, labor unions and faith groups, had joined together to press for a March ballot measure on the issue. It took more than an hour for everyone to clear security and some were forced to stand in the back of the packed board room, while others assembled outside listening to the meeting over loudspeakers.

“This is the face of democracy in the county,” Ridley-Thomas said.

Ridley-Thomas also joined with Supervisor Kathryn Barger on a proposal to have homelessness declared a county emergency, a move that paves the way to put the sales tax on the March ballot. That motion was also unanimously approved.

The board voted in June to press state officials to declare a statewide emergency and direct more funding to the problem. The Los Angeles City Council and some state lawmakers have echoed that call, but Gov. Jerry Brown has resisted such efforts.

Hahn said that if any other disaster—an earthquake, fire or flood—left 47,000 people homeless, “We would bring every resource we could and many people would stay up at night worrying” about how to get people back in their homes.

The January point-in-time count of the homeless reflected a 19 percent increase since 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The number of those in tent encampments, huddled under freeway overpasses or otherwise on the street account for nearly three-quarters of the 47,000 homeless people, according to the LAHSA data.

Cedillo recalled a recent trip to Hamburg, Germany, during which he didn’t see one homeless person.

“Not one person in this county should be sleeping on the streets,” Cedillo said.

Harris-Dawson told the board that the city of Los Angeles’ recent success in passing HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to fund the construction of housing for the homeless, cannot stand alone, as the city relies on the county to provide supportive services.

“HHH only works, if the county can make an investment in services,” Harris-Dawson said.

It will cost $450 million annually to provide the supportive services, short-term housing subsidies and emergency shelter needed to end homelessness and keep people off the streets, according to LAHSA. That does not include the construction costs funded by HHH and other sources.

The quarter-cent sales tax is estimated to provide $355 million annually for 10 years. A sunset clause is built in for accountability and assessment.

The absolute numbers are large, but Phil Ansell, the director of the county’s homeless initiative, broke it down for voters, saying the tax would amount to “an additional tax of one dime on the purchase of a $40 sweater or $1 on the purchase of a $400 television.”

Two-thirds of voters will need to approve the measure for it to pass.