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Petaluma City Council considers possible tax measure

Published: Monday, August 5, 2013 at 9:23 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 5, 2013 at 9:23 a.m.

Maybe the third time will be the charm for Petaluma residents.

In the past 10 years, voters have defeated two proposed tax increases, but city leaders are considering possibly trying a third measure, likely for the November 2014 ballot.

At Monday’s council meeting, the issue will be discussed, including whether to spend as much as $290,000 for polling, a campaign and election costs.

The details are open — what kind of tax, how much, for what purpose and for how long.

For now, City Manager John Brown said the discussion should be limited to whether the council should survey residents to determine their tolerance for any tax, and if so, what kind of measure might stand the greatest chance of approval.

In 2003, voters rejected Measure D, a proposed utility tax of 5 percent for 20 years to fund road improvements. Last year, Measure X, a 15-year parks and recreation parcel tax, also failed.

Both measures were special taxes, which require a two-thirds majority to succeed.

In 2010 and 2012, the council decided against seeking a hotel-tax increase, and talk of a sales-tax increase fizzled last year after informal polling showed little public support.

Councilwoman Kathy Miller, who was deeply involved in the Measure X effort, said “taking the pulse” of the community is critical before embarking on a potential tax hike.

“Some people favor a special tax and some favor a general tax,” she said. “It’s nice to have flexibility to use the money for whatever you need to use it for. But people don’t want to see it go to pensions. They’d rather see it go to roads or police or whatever.”

Residents have clamored for greater spending on the city’s notoriously poor roads, while virtually every city department has reduced services in the past five years and employee health care and retirement costs have risen.

Long-term budget projections show the city, despite spending cuts from $49 million in 2008 to $32.5 million last year, is still headed toward long-term deficits.

Expenditures rose by about $3 million this year and will continue rising because of the increased cost of employee health care and retirement benefits, the expiration of grant funding for firefighting positions and replenishing of the general fund reserve, Brown said.

The city also has a “growing need to resume investment in vehicles, facilities and infrastructure” that went unfunded or underfunded during the leanest years, he said.

“Balancing larger deficits and meeting unmet needs going forward will require a new funding mechanism – tax increases – if the city is to remain responsive to the public’s needs,” Brown advised the council in his staff report.

The council could consider a parcel tax, a sales tax increase or an increase in the hotel-tax, charged to overnight visitors.

It could be permanent or one with a limited time, or “sunset” clause.

It could be designed as a general tax, which the council would decide how to spend; or a specific tax, earmarked for a particular purpose like roads or public safety.

A specific tax has a higher two-thirds bar to reach for passage, compared with a general tax that requires only majority support.

Given the failure of Measure X, which had a majority of support, but failed to reach the two-thirds threshold, the council may want to conduct detailed polling to gauge support before spending an estimated $100,000 to $200,000 on a campaign. An election could cost $50,000.

Brown said the city would likely seek contributions from the community to fund the polling, which could cost between $20,000 and $40,000.

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 11 English St.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com)

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