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Homeless funding may ride on who wins LA County supervisors race

by Rina Palta and Mary Plummer | Take Two®

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A tent stands on E Fifth Street at Towne Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015 near where General Dogon used to live. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Opponents to L.A. city ballot measure HHH say it only pays to build housing for the homeless – it doesn't provide the money for services, too.

But there is a path on Tuesday's vote that could lead to cash for these programs.

Two L.A. County supervisors are retiring – Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich – and who takes their seats might throw their support behind a separate ballot measure in the spring to increase sales taxes that fund services.

KPCC reporter Rina Palta and Mary Plummer break it down.

Why can't the money from HHH be used for services?

Palta: Because it's only intended to build buildings – create the actual physical structures for people who are currently homeless to live in.

It’s also a bond measure, which really means one-time funds, not an ongoing stream of revenue that the city has available to it in indefinitely.

The argument is, we need something that will be a permanent source of cash to use for services.

What kind of services are we talking about here?

Palta: There’s a wide range of stuff that falls into this category, and the county has a plan that's about 100 pages long with different strategies.

One would create outreach teams to get people signed up for income programs they may qualify for, like disability benefits.

Another would provide mental health services by hiring case managers and counselors who may work with some people for a lifetime.  

Why is it important to have both homeless housing and services at the same time?

Palta: Housing helps provide stability for those currently homeless on the streets.

Services will address the prevention of homelessness so more people don't end up on the streets of places like Skid Row.

To fund services, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors would have to approve putting the issue on the ballot. How does this Tuesday's vote factor in?

Plummer: Four out of the five supervisors need to support this measure. This election that this could be the moment for a power shift on the board of Supervisors depending on how the races for the two open seats shake out.

Palta: Last time this issue came up in July, the three members of the Board who will remain, all voted in favor of a sales tax.

So at least one of the newcomers needs to be open to the idea of placing this on the ballot. Where do the candidates stand?

Plummer: Only two out of the four candidates are firm yes’s.
 
One is Democratic candidate Darrell Park, who's running to represent the 5th district. He supports a measure that lasts until 90 percent of homeless people have housing.

The other is Republican Steve Napolitano, and he's running for the 4th district seat which covers the South Bay.  He supports a 1/4 cent sales tax measure with a 15 year limit.
 
Both of these candidates’ opponents were less clear on the issue. 
 
Republican candidate Kathryn Barger, who’s competing against Park, said she didn’t want to comment on a tax measure she hadn’t seen.
 
And in District 4, Congresswoman Janice Hahn, who is the democratic candidate running against Napolitano, is calling for an emergency plan to address homelessness. But she didn’t commit to whether she’d support the sales tax measure. 

If one of the candidates who support the measure get elected into office and votes for it, then it would come before voters in a March referendum. Why?

Plummer: Any local sales tax that is earmarked for a specific use requires a two-thirds supermajority vote for approval. 

How much would the sales tax increase? And how much would be raised?

Plummer: This would be 1/4 cent sales tax increase at the county level. Keep in mind we’ve got a 1/4 cent sales tax at the state level that is sunsetting at the end of the year, so that would help off set an increase.

But this could raise an estimated $355 million a year.

Palta: However, county officials estimated it would take $450 million to get these services working well. So they'd be short of what they need, but it is by far the biggest proposal anyone’s put forward in memory.

If HHH fails, does that mean this sales tax proposal will die with it, too?

Plummer: HHH and the potential measure we’ve been talking about are different funding streams.

But it’s really too early to tell whether a county sales tax measure will even make it on the ballot. That depends a lot on the makeup of the new Board of Supervisors.

Right now, the candidates appear to be split on their support for putting a sales tax measure before voters.

Voting has begun in California. KPCC is here for you and will help you develop your Voter Game Plan. Use our election guide to find your personalized ballot.

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