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One city tax on ballot

Published: Monday, July 30, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.

As the November election fast approaches, Petalumans can plan to only see one local tax measure on their ballots — the $52 annual Petaluma Friends of Recreation parcel tax to fund park improvements.

The Petaluma City Council recently debated placing a quarter-to-half-cent sales tax hike on the ballot that would have raised general fund money that could be used at the council's discretion to fund anything it deemed necessary.

But after the Petaluma Police Officers Association published a guest commentary in last week's Argus-Courier say ing it would not support a general fund tax measure, coupled with confusion surrounding whether the tax proposal needed a four-vote majority or a five-vote supermajority from the seven-member council to be placed on the ballot, the council decided last Thursday to abandon the measure altogether.

Only Vice Mayor Tiffany Reneé, Mike Healy and Chris Albertson said they'd vote for the tax, while Mayor David Glass, Gabe Kearny, Mike Harris, and Teresa Barrett said they'd vote against it.

Glass said that he did not support trying to pass a tax at the same time as the citizen-led Petaluma Friends of Recreation is attempting to win support for its tax measure that requires a two-thirds majority voter approval. The council's sales tax measure would have required a simple 50 percent plus one voter majority to pass, had it made it on the ballot.

“After the PFOR people have done their homework, pounded the pavement and got their 5,300 signatures to place a tax on the ballot, they deserve a fighting chance to get their measure passed,” said Glass.

Petaluma's sales tax currently sits at 8 percent and brings in just under $10 million, annually in revenue. A half-cent sales tax increase would have produced an additional $5 million annually for the cash-strapped city, while raising it a quarter-cent would have raised $2.5 million according to City Manager John Brown. Tax rates for nearby cities range from 8 to 8.5 percent.

Reneé, who first recommended the sales tax measure earlier this summer, said that she is disappointed in her fellow council members who she said decided to avoid their responsibilities to the people of Petaluma.

“We had a number of council members who were unable to do their job and give the community the opportunity to weigh in on a potential tax increase,” said Reneé. “That's all we were doing — giving the public the chance to let their voices be heard.”

Reneé contended that the programs the tax monies would have funded will now continue to suffer. She listed some of the top candidates for the tax revenue as nonprofits serving Petaluma's poorest members, public safety and stormwater maintenance.

But Police Association president Paul Gilman pointed out that none of the programs Reneé referenced were guaranteed any money, and said that one of the main reasons the POA didn't support the measure was that it wasn't clear where the money would go.

“From the department's point of view, we didn't know where the money was going and felt like the council was asking for a lot of trust,” he said, adding that it would have only been a short-term fix.

The county is not expected to place any tax measures on the ballot, but reports of staff working to submit a parks and recreation tax increase to the board were revealed on Friday. After news of the California State Parks $54 million surplus went public, it essentially sank the county staff's efforts to get their measure approved.

County Supervisor David Rabbitt spoke at the July 2 Petaluma City Council meeting and reported that supervisors did not intend to place any tax increase measures on the ballot. In light of Friday's news of a possible county recreation tax, Glass questioned the county's level of transparency in a letter sent to Rabbitt and several press outlets earlier this week.

Rabbitt responded by saying he had been unaware of the parks and recreation tax measure that staff had been developing until last week. He added that he alerted the Petaluma parks group PFOR immediately and would have not been in favor of supporting such a rushed measure.

At the state level, voters will be looking at Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative that would temporarily increase income taxes for Californians who earn more than $250,00 a year and raise the sales tax by a quarter cent. The revenues would help fund public education.

Voters will also be asked to pass a competing education measure — the Molly Munger measure — which would increase state income tax on a sliding scale for everyone but the poorest residents.

For Petaluma, not placing a tax measure on this year's ballot means that the council will have to wait another two years before revisiting the issue.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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