LA officials say sales tax for homeless could save money

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas kicks off the campaign to raise L.A.'s sales tax to pay for homeless services.
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas kicks off the campaign to raise L.A.'s sales tax to pay for homeless services.

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Officials from around L.A. County are hoping for help from taxpayers to tackle the region’s growing homeless problem. Their campaign to increase the sales tax to fund homeless services formally kicked off at a rally Monday. 

Measure H, which will appear on the March 7 ballot, would add a ¼ cent to existing sales taxes, which vary across cities within the county, and potentially raise $355 million annually. But the pitch from local leaders was that the measure would actually save money in the long-run by getting homeless off the streets.

"I know there are some who are hesitant to add to the sales tax," said L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, addressing the crowd of service providers, politicians, and media gathered at a shelter run by PATH in Koreatown. "But please know homelessness is already costing taxpayers in ways that are more painful and less productive."

Hahn said the L.A. County Sheriff's Department spends $41 million annually on arresting, incarcerating, and supervising homeless people, the Los Angeles Police Department $80 million, along with millions spent through the public health system on treating homeless in emergency rooms.

"A quarter-cent sales tax would amount to a dime on the cost of a forty-dollar sweater or a dollar on a four-hundred-dollar tv," she said. "What we're asking for is a small sacrifice."

The tax, which would expire after ten years, would go to services outlined in the county's 47-point blueprint for tackling homelessness, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, eviction prevention services, and outreach to the currently homeless.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the authors of the measure, promised the funds would be spent on services for the entire county, including small cities and unincorporated areas. 

Measure H is meant as a companion to Proposition HHH, which voters in the City of Los Angeles passed in November. The $1.2 billion in bond money from that initiative will be spent on constructing housing for homeless. It passed with 76 percent of the vote.

But the road is a little different for Measure H, which won't have the benefit of the relatively high turnout of Nov. 8, when state offices and presidential candidates were also on the ballot.

On March 7, Measure H will appear on far more sparse ballots. Looking at likely voters across the county, 40 percent of them will only have Measure H to vote on, said Steve Barkan, of SG&A Campaigns, who's running the Yes-on-H effort.

Previous municipal elections in the area have seen more in the range of 25 percent turnout, he said.

"At 25 percent, we will win," he said. "What's exciting here is there's so much interest in solving homelessness."

So far, the campaign has raised over $1.3 million, according to filings with the L.A. County Clerk’s office. Among the biggest donors are real estate developers, philanthropists and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’s Committee for a Better L.A.

The measure has no organized opposition. 

It has support from the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. 

Should the measure pass, county leaders have initial plans for how the funds would be spent. Current plans provide for a commission consisting of service providers, faith community leaders and officials from each part of the county to draft a spending plan for the first few years.