City Rescinds Contract for Polling on Possible Tax Renewal

By Haley Sawyer
Special to The Review

After weeks of debating the issue, the city has for now ditched the public polling contract that might have influenced what South Pasadena ballots look like in November.
The City Council voted 4-1 last week to  with True North Research Inc., the company that would have been used for the public polling. The primary purpose of the poll would have mainly been to explore residents’ interest in renewing the user utility tax, or UUT, which runs through 2022.
“This is been such an extraordinary year,” Mayor Pro Tem Diana Mahmud said last week. “I’ve previously strongly supported the polls, but I have since changed my mind. I’m concerned for several reasons. … I’m concerned that any poll results might not be indicative of future attitudes at election time due to the continued economic and health uncertainty that may prevail at election time.”
The public poll could also have included other issues — chiefly residents’ receptiveness to adding a real estate transfer tax, modifying building height limits and creating a transient occupancy tax for Airbnb accommodations — but some council members were concerned that such additions could distract from the UUT.
“I think you put all these things in a poll and they’re all going to get voted down,” said Councilman Richard Schneider. “Let’s not lose our way. What’s really important here is the UUT.”
Schneider added that the group advocating renewal of the UUT has said it does not need polling results for its campaign. Though the City Council plans to ask for a renewal of the tax before it sunsets in 2022, it has not yet placed the item on the ballot for November’s election.
The council first approved the $25,000 contract in May, but the agreement returned as a consent item that was pulled for discussion at the meeting to both hash out whether to poll residents on additional issues and also decide whether to draw from the general fund or use council members’ discretionary funds to pay for it. At that June 10 meeting, there was still interest in conducting the poll, especially because it could reach potential voters or residents who might not have before been familiar with policies that could affect them.
“My goal is to constantly engage new people and educate,” Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian said then. “…The sense for me was that the poll could … reach more people and also be able to kind of help them sort through options … we are going [to] have to face some pretty challenging options coming down the road and we still have to make decisions about what goes on the ballot. Regardless of whether we do the poll or not, we’re still going to have to make some choices.”
Khubesrian cast the only vote to retain the polling contract last week.
The council had also considered gauging public opinion on whether to change the building height limit, which is currently at a voter-mandated 45 feet. Increasing the limit, which currently allows four floors based on typical ceiling heights, has been considered a potential option for the city to address its state mandate for affordable housing, but may run afoul of the skyline desired by residents.
With proper zoning, however, buildings exceeding 45 feet could be limited to certain areas.
“It’s not as if you eliminate the 45-feet limit and the sky is the limit,” Mahmud said at the June 10 meeting. “You can still impose not only a maximum limit but you can also certainly limit by way of zoning where such taller construction may occur.”
A possible transient occupancy tax, which would primarily target Airbnb rentals, was previously considered to add to the survey as well. The subject will return to the agenda for a future meeting so that the council can decide if it will be seen on the November ballot. Airbnb listings persist even though the city does not formally permit them.
Khubesrian said that with the current state of the economy, residents could rent out their property for extra income.
“That was very popular thing on the survey we did last year,” she said, “and I think if we don’t consider it as a ballot option for November, we would be completely remiss in potentially mining this additional source of revenue in these times.”
Those issues are still of concern, but the council has opted to home in on the UUT for the time being.
“The UUT tax is the most important thing on the ballot,” Mayor Bob Joe said last week. “I think we’re going to have to focus right now on one of these items and trying to get the UUT passed. And also, working with the committee a little bit, they felt that having a poll right now even on UUT is very hard to read during this time.”