South Pasadena voters will decide whether to renew the user utility tax in November, but will have to wait until a different election to possibly create an entirely new tax and consider raising the height limit for local buildings.
Putting the renewal for the user utility tax, or UUT, on the fall ballot was a unanimous City Council decision last week. Residents also will be casting votes for candidates for three City Council seats, the U.S. House and, of course, president.
The UUT, slated to expire at the beginning of the 2022-23 fiscal year, generates about $3.4 million annually and is the city’s second-largest revenue source, after property taxes. It raises money from a charge on utilities like water, cellphone plans and cable TV.
Though excluding a potential transient occupancy tax and the building-height question from the ballot was part of the council’s vote on the UUT, the ideas do retain some support from members of the panel, at least as a future consideration. Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian advocated moving forward with the height limit issue this year.
“I don’t think we’re going to get that much turnout in March,” she said, pointing to the high-stakes contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden in November. “I would like to have as many people in this city [vote]. I feel like that would be the most democratic process of weighing in on the height issue.”
The council first considered the idea of raising building-height limits as a way to address the affordable housing mandate from the state, which is expected to tell the city to allow more than 2,000 new units in the next decade. Many residents who commented at last week’s meeting echoed support for a measure on that basis, though there also were commenters worried about kowtowing to developers.
Mayor Pro Tem Diana Mahmud said she felt the proposal needed more work, including additional input from the city’s Planning Commission, before voters should decide on it. That panel recently recommended holding off on the measure.
“I think it would be a nonstarter. I don’t think we’d have any reasonable chance of achieving passage if the proposal was unlimited as to anywhere within the city,” Mahmud added. “I do believe the Planning Commission has a good grasp of the challenge of having to accommodate the additional housing that has been assigned, so, reluctantly, I support the determination of the Planning Commission that we just don’t have sufficient information at this time to move forward.”
Addressing fears about high-rises popping up in South Pasadena, similar to the downtown areas of nearby Pasadena or Glendale, Khubesrian pointed out a height limit change could simply add one or two stories to the limit and the city’s commissions still ultimately retained the right to ultimately approve projects.
“Changing the height limit does not make those buildings appear overnight. It’s not like we’re getting 2,000 units overnight,” she added. “You’re just drawing an outline in space where a design model could fit.”
Khubesrian also pointed out that it would be cheaper for the city to add the item to November’s ballot, when the entire county is participating in the same election, whereas a March election will be sharing the election’s costs among fewer governments.
Still, in spite of the public comments, the remainder of the council remained skeptical.
“You don’t have the widespread support for it that you would need,” said Councilman Richard Schneider.