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Survey: Petalumans would OK sales tax hike

Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 2:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 2:10 p.m.

Petaluma voters appear willing to tax themselves for better streets and less traffic congestion, according to poll results released Monday night to the City Council.

The telephone survey of 450 likely voters, conducted Nov. 25 to Nov. 27, indicates that Petaluma residents are receptive to a city sales-tax increase of as much as 1 percent for as long as 30 years, said pollster Bill Berry of William Berry Campaigns.

Such a tax would raise $10 million a year, for a total of $300 million, and would pay for nearly every major street project the city currently envisions, including the long-planned but unfunded Rainier Avenue overcrossing and interchange project.

City Council members appeared universally thrilled with the results and expressed a desire to begin groundwork to place a proposed tax increase on the November ballot.

Berry recommended the city seek a general tax rather than a specific one. A general tax, one whose proceeds would go into the city's general fund to be spent however the City Council decides, requires a simple majority to pass. A special tax, one in which a specific funding purpose is defined for voters, needs two-thirds' approval.

About 60 percent of poll respondents said they'd "definitely or probably vote for" a 1 percent tax for 30 years. That's one extra penny on a $1 purchase, or $350 on a $35,000 purchase.

That support increased to 65 percent for a half-cent tax and rose to nearly 70 percent (69.8 percent) with a quarter-cent tax.

The poll proposed a ballot question called "Safe Petaluma" and defined its purpose as one that would fund services including police and fire jobs, buildings and vehicles; road and sidewalk repairs; flood protection; public transportation and better street lighting.

That type of wording, City Attorney Eric Danly said, qualifies as a general tax. But if the measure earmarked a percentage of the tax proceeds toward particular projects, that would make it a specific tax.

"You can't have a measure that locks in the commitment of the funding or it's a special tax," he said.

The results have a margin of error of 4 percent, Berry said.

The poll emphasized public safety as a beneficiary of tax proceeds, which the results showed was important to Petalumans.

It didn't ask how respondents felt about funding pensions and retirement benefits with a tax hike.

The city currently has $47.7 million in unfunded pension liabilities -- the difference between current assets and projected payments to retirees. About $35.5 million of that is for public safety retirees, with $12.2 for other city workers.

Petaluma voters have twice rejected tax hikes in the past decade. In 2003, a proposed utility tax of 5 percent for 20 years for road improvements, failed. In 2012, a 15-year parks and recreation parcel tax, also failed. Both measures were special taxes.

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

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