RIALTO - A tax measure on Tuesday's ballot will show how much of an appetite those here have for helping the city dig out of a financial hole created by the still-sluggish economy and generous benefits given to public employees by previous city councils.

Voters will either extend the $11 million utility-users tax another five years through Measure W or let it expire on June 30.

The 8 percent tax is the largest single source of revenue at roughly 22 percent of the city's $49.3 million budget for fiscal 2012-13.

"The reality is if we lose 22 percent of our budget, that will bring about some extremely draconian cuts," Mayor Deborah Robertson said. "It will be bare bones."

Officials warn that up to 20 positions could be lost in the Police Department, and the Las Colinas fire station may be closed.

The city also stands to see cuts in street sweeping, graffiti removal and park maintenance, as well as the elimination of services at the senior and community centers.

Two code enforcement officers and up to five public works positions may fall victim to budget cuts.

The possible cuts are staggering in dollar amounts: the Police Department faces a $5.3 million hit and the Fire Department is looking at up to $2.9 million in reductions.

Public works is looking at losing $1 million, and recreation faces $277,000 in cuts.

General Fund revenues have plunged nearly $8.5 million since 2007. Revenue would be a third less than in 2007 if Measure W doesn't pass.

City Administrator Mike Story said city leaders will then have to decide on which services are absolutely essential to keep.

"We're going to have to look at different options," he said. "It's going to affect a lot of different things."

Measure W comes on the heels of voters shooting down Measure V in November. The proposed tax on petroleum companies in the city could have brought in $5 million annually by some estimates.

Voters have twice approved the utility-users tax. It has been in place for 10 years.

Critics of such measures say they are little more than politicians leaning on taxpayers to bail them out of poor financial decisions in the past.

"There's nothing as permanent as a temporary government tax," said Steve Greenhut, the Sacramento-based vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Rialto is no different than cities throughout California that are paying the price for out-of-control spending, according to Greenhut.

"Cities haven't been that concerned about their spending, and as soon as they run out of money, they increase their taxes," he said. "So they're trying to make up for their poor spending decisions by taxing residents."

Story said it's up to residents to trust the city a third time.

"We leave it with them to give us another five years, with a new council, department heads and a new mayor to go in a direction to wean ourself off of it," he said.

The utility-users tax 10 years ago was touted as a way to enhance public safety and other services.

But the council in 2008 sweetened public safety pensions by approving a "3 at 50" plan that allows one to retire at age 50 and take 3 percent of his final pay-year for each year of service.

Public safety now eats 70 percent of the city's General Fund.

Non-safety employees got a bump to 2.75 at 55, allowing retirement at 55 with 82.5 percent of their final year's salary.

The utility-users tax is now seen as a means to merely maintain services and delay talk of bankruptcy, something officials here are hesitant to discuss publicly in light of San Bernardino becoming an international headline-maker as that city works its way through Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.

"The worst thing we can do is throw up our hands and file for bankruptcy and let the judges and court system tell us to do what we should've done all along," Story said.

And they aren't looking at Measure W as a panacea.

Officials have trimmed the city's workforce from 330 to 259 employees, which translates to a 22 percent reduction from 2007 staffing levels. 

Departments have been consolidated in City Hall, and police brass are working with other agencies for SWAT and air patrol services in order to save money.

Ongoing negotiations with labor groups could end with city workers paying more into their retirement and giving back perks that include some holidays and paid sick leave.

The city already has cut the deficit from $7.6 million to $2.1 million.

But the city has also burned through reserves in the last five years, leaving $17 million in the tank as the economy continues to gasp.

Rialto declared a fiscal emergency in order to place Measure W on the ballot. It is not alone.

Grand Terrace expects a $337,000 deficit by the fiscal year's end in June, causing officials there to consider declaring a fiscal emergency and asking voters to approve a new tax.

Should Measure W pass, officials here vow to look at ways to avoid bringing the utility-users tax back to voters in five years.

"Within these five years we will come up with another revenue source so that we will wean ourself off the utility-users tax," Robertson said.

Government watchdogs like Greenhut don't buy it.

"All you're doing is funding dysfunctional government, assuring that they will come back for more money," he said. "They out-spend their budgets in good years and bad."


Reach Josh via email, call him at 909-386-3894.