El Cajon scrambles for financial audit to reassure voters ahead of sales tax vote
Leaders in the largest city in East County moved quickly this week to hire an outside firm to audit local finances, in a bid to reassure voters that raising taxes was the only way to go. significantly improve municipal services and force tent camps off the streets.
El Cajon city council voted narrowly Tuesday to bring in an outside firm to scour the budget for money that can be spent on new cops and firefighters.
Proponents said the additional review would reassure business owners that it was necessary to raise the current tax from the city’s half cent to 1 cent.
An audit could “confirm” that “we’re doing a good job here in El Cajon managing public funds,” said councilman Phil Ortiz, who voted for the measure along with Mayor Bill Wells and the deputy mayor. Michelle Metschel.
However, the November election is less than 60 days away, and it’s unclear if any company would have time to comb through more than $92 million in annual spending.
“I wonder if this amounts to a paid five-star review,” board member Steve Goble said. He and his colleague Gary Kendrick opposed this decision.
All five council members voted last month to put the sales tax measure before voters.
While everyone seems to be in favor of the raise, the rules prevent them from explicitly campaigning for the proposal, and El Cajon’s attorney has twice cut them off. Tuesday’s meeting to tell officials they were skirting the line.
If approved, the tax is expected to raise an additional $13 million each year, and city leaders signaled support for a rough plan outlining how they would spend the money.
Four million would go towards hiring at least 20 cops who, in addition to cracking down on illegal encampments, could expand the department’s cold business team.
An additional $4 million would go to the fire department to increase shifts and potentially reduce reliance on neighboring agencies.
Two million would be spent on “cleanliness”, which also refers to homelessness issues. Currently, the city says it can respond to a tent camp report within 72 hours. More money would reduce that timeframe to 24 hours, officials said.
The city would use $1.5 million to help small businesses and improve crumbling apartment buildings and $1.1 million for new streetlights and other neighborhood improvements.
The spending plan is non-binding and no formal vote took place on Tuesday.
At a special meeting Thursday, Ortiz and Metschel were named to a new subcommittee to choose a company.
If the short deadline ultimately blocks a review, there are other ways to assess the city’s finances.
The city is already audited regularly, and the most recent was carried out last year by San Bernardino-based accounting firm Rogers, Anderson, Malody and Scott, LLP.
The audit found local officials had “fairly” represented their finances, according to a copy of the report included in the city’s financial records.
Ratings agency Standard and Poor’s also gave the city’s pension bonds an AA rating, meaning El Cajon has “a very strong ability to meet financial commitments,” according to a 2020 letter.
The rating is the second highest possible, behind AAA.
Additionally, the council voted unanimously on Tuesday to hire a company to create videos and direct mail to “educate” voters on how the tax works.
Probolsky Research will receive $55,000 for “public education and community outreach.”
The Newport Beach-based company previously conducted a poll for the city, which found nearly 70% of respondents open to a 1-cent sales tax if it would improve public safety.
The new revenue would be overseen by a seven-member Citizens’ Oversight Committee, similar to the group that oversaw the 2004 Proposition O tax money.