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Community activist Gale McNeeley speaks against Measure U, a sales tax measure to raise money for public safety spending that will be on the ballot in November.

Who thought that our Measure U tax dollars would allow our City Council to give tax rebates to auto dealers waiting to create an Enos Ranch Auto Mall?

We are talking of a tax revenue loss of close to $4 million. Here is what the city has to say about the loss of tax revenue due to tax rebates to the auto dealers.

“If fees are unavailable to fund the infrastructure improvements, either the improvements are not completed or are completed with funding that is acquired through grants or accessing the city's General Fund.”

History shows us whenever the city grants rebates to one group, another group must pick up the bill. In this case, decreasing fees and taxes for auto dealers means we will pay the bill from the city’s General Fund.

What could that $4 million be used for? Soccer fields. Arts programming for our youth. Downtown development. Projects that would benefit us all.

Measure U is projected to bring in $18 million in new taxes each year. It was sold to us as an answer to our public safety needs. Now that it is a reality, city officials can designate it all for public safety if they choose. This will free up dollars from the General Fund to pay for infrastructure improvements needed for the Enos Ranch Auto Mall.

City leaders convinced us to vote for a 1-percent sales tax that will not end. Now they have given auto dealerships that move to Enos Ranch a sweetheart deal that will lower their sales tax for the next 10 years.

Would you have voted for Measure U if you knew your money would go to tax rebates for auto dealerships?

This was all done without input from citizens. There were no hearings. The idea was discussed at a council meeting in June, tabled until after the election, then passed without real discussion or citizen input at the last City Council meeting.

Only outgoing Councilman Jack Boysen questioned the move.

“We just asked the public to grant us a huge sale tax increase …” he said. “Is this going to be one of those things where it’s looked on as, well, we have Measure U, so we can give this money back?”

That’s exactly how it looks, because that’s what the city is doing.

A long-standing community leader stated the council does not bargain well with developers, and city leaders fold easily in negotiations on new developments. The mayor and council waive fee after fee just do get something built. It’s the taxpayers who wind up paying the bill.

The auto dealerships pushed for the Enos Ranch development because they wanted high visibility on the 101. They planned to move there with or without rebates. So, why does the city have to sweeten the deal? It doesn’t.

What this speaks to is the chronic lack of transparency in city government. Under our current leadership, all the major decisions are made behind closed doors. When there is public input, it is disregarded.

It is time to open the back room and let us in. We need a healthy discussion on the way city government is run, and a new democratic approach to decision making. Our new council person, Gloria Soto, promises to bring new energy and honesty to the council. She needs our help if she is to succeed in bringing real transparency to city government.

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Gale McNeeley is a Santa Maria resident.