ANTIOCH -- Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Residential concerns about rampant crime in Antioch appear to have reached that turning point last week, with voters soundly approving a tax aimed at putting more police back on the streets.
Almost 68 percent of the 10,083 voters who went to the polls or cast absentee ballots in the Tuesday election voted for Measure C -- a landslide in any election. But what makes the result even more significant for the traditionally anti-tax city is that it comes on the heels of a nearly identical ballot measure failing in 2010.
"I think the community has really started to realize what our crime picture is," police Chief Allan Cantando said. "It's like you don't really need health insurance until you're sick, you don't need a police officer until you have an emergency and need a response."
Police statistics show that the number of overall crime incidences in Antioch jumped from 3,550 in 2009 to 5,825 in 2012, an increase of 39 percent. Violent crime went from 897 to 1,068 during that time, a 16 percent increase.
Meanwhile, Antioch's police staff whittled down from 126 sworn officers in 2009 to around 85 -- the same as in 1995, when the city of 104,000 was about half its population. Arrests have decreased, and it takes officers longer to respond to calls these days.
"Things were starting to go bad in 2010, but nowhere near as bad as 2011 and 2012. That woke a lot of people up," said Hans Ho, Antioch's neighborhood watch coordinator.
Though firmly anti-tax, Ho said he advocated for Measure P in 2010 because he "knew what the downfall would be."
"The crime issue really manifested, and I think residents said enough is enough. It seems they put their foot down," said Ralph Garrow, a resident and local real estate agent.
Antioch's financial situation also made it difficult to recruit and hire sworn officers when leaders gave the green light to hire last year. Currently there are about a dozen funded but unfilled positions.
"It was a concern of (veteran) applicants. They did their homework and were goggling Antioch and worried about our financial situation," Cantando said.
Measure C's passage will help in recruiting because potential applicants will see the city's solvency and some job security, he said.
While Measure P had sizable opposition groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, there was only a grass-roots effort of a few vocal residents urging "No" votes this time. The taxpayers association stayed neutral, while the chamber endorsed Measure C, provided it expires in seven years.
"Everybody in the community came all together," said Sean Wright, the chamber's CEO. "Normally the chamber stands opposed to (business taxes), but we looked at it all for this and saw that crime is more of a detriment on business as a whole than a half-cent sales tax."
This time out city leadership was united in supporting the tax and assuring it would go toward public safety. Also in its favor was the fact that other nearby cities have passed similar measures.
More people voted in the 2010 election, as 18,527 votes were cast for Measure P.
Measure C organizers raised $54,100 for the campaign, with money coming from a broad cross-section of supporters.
One who was unhappy about the outcome was Ralph Hernandez, a former city councilman and staunch tax opponent.
"They succeeded in fooling the public," he said of the tax, noting there's no guarantee it will go to police.
The estimated millions brought in through Measure C will go to the city's general fund, where it can be used for any legal municipal purpose -- including police, code enforcement, economic development, fixing potholes, senior and youth services and other programs.
"It was a very easy, understandable message,'" said Karl Dietzel, a resident opposed to the measure.
His main concern is that it is uncertain where the money will be spent.
The need for police and willingness to pay for them became almost a given as the campaign came down the home stretch. The common arguments against sales tax hikes gave way to one question: Can the City Council be trusted to spend the money only on police?
City leaders reiterated last week that the money's focus would be to lower crime and clean up blighted properties.
Measure C has a seven-member citizens oversight committee, which will be appointed by the City Council in the next couple of months, and there will be an annual audit to keep tabs on how the money is spent.
Though the measure passed handily, skepticism remains.
"The council will have to win that trust; not with rhetoric, but with action," Ho said.
Garrow added: "It would be political suicide not to put it to law enforcement."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
Sale Tax Rates
Here is how Antioch's sales tax compares with other Bay Area cities, now and when Measure C starts on April 1.
City Percent per dollar
Antioch (current) 8.5
Antioch (Measure C) 9
Walnut Creek 8.5
San Pablo 9
San Leandro 9.25
Union City 9.5
San Jose 8.75
San Francisco 8.75
Source: California State Board of Equalization