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Poll: Voters likely to support tax used for streets

Cracked street in Petaluma.

Argus-Courier file photo.
Published: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 12:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 12:56 p.m.

As city council members revel in poll results that showed Petaluma voters are likely to approve a sales tax increase to pay for street and traffic improvements, they now face the daunting task of crafting a measure that ensures voters get what they want.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the support,” said Mayor David Glass. “But now the real work begins.”

A recent survey of 450 Petaluma voters conducted by the Sacramento firm William Berry Campaigns showed that 60 percent of those polled were likely to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase for a duration of 30 years, if the money it raised went to road maintenance and crosstown connectors to reduce traffic congestion.

Therein lies the problem for city officials. While 60 percent is a majority of voters, it does not meet the required two-thirds majority to pass a specialized tax that funds specific projects, such as street repair. A general tax measure, which only requires a 50-plus-one majority approval making it much more likely to pass, cannot be earmarked for specific projects. The revenue raised goes into the city's general fund coffers and can be spent at the city council's discretion.

“What we absolutely cannot do is ask the voters to pass a general sales tax that the public thinks will pay for traffic relief and then not provide the traffic relief,” said Glass. “I'm very pleased that the public has enough faith in this council to see that we truly need the money and we would spend it where they want us to. Now we just have to figure out how to get the voters what they want for many years to come, through many different councils.”

Petaluma's 8.25 percent sales tax rate is currently tied for the second lowest in the county with Sebastopol. A 1-cent increase for 30 years would raise about $10 million a year and about $300 million over the life of the tax, and bring the city's sales tax to 9.25 percent. The additional penny on every dollar spent in Petaluma would generate enough money to fund almost all the street projects the city currently has planned — including the long-promised Rainier Avenue crosstown connector, designed to give commuters another route to travel between east and west Petaluma.

“Three hundred million dollars over the life of the tax means you could do a lot,” said City Councilmember Mike Healy. “You could build two crosstown connectors.”

But a 1-cent increase would also put Petaluma at the highest sales tax rate in the county — something that worries Glass.

“Over 9 percent is a concern to me,” he said Tuesday. “At what point do we lose shoppers because we've become non-competitive in our pricing? I'm not sure. But we also have to realize that many people want traffic mitigation and they may be willing to pay for it. These are all things we have to get a better handle on before we move forward.”

Passing a tax increase measure is not easy, according to William Berry Campaigns consultant Bill Berry.

“You have the necessary support to place a general funding measure on the ballot, but it will need to address traffic and street maintenance,” said Berry.

City Manager John Brown stressed the need to educate the public on the benefits such a tax could provide.

“Our next step is to go out in the community and validate what the survey suggests,” said Brown. “We will be talking to associations, groups and citizens. The council needs to see the results of that before making any decisions on what the tax would look like. I'm highly encouraged by what I'm seeing here, though.”

Brown estimated city staff would need about four months to meet with the public before it can recommend any specifics on on how the measure should be crafted to the council.

Voters were also polled about a possible half- and quarter-cent sales tax increase for between five and 30 years. The poll showed about 65 percent of voters would approve a half-cent increase and almost 70 percent would approve a quarter-cent increase. Barry said the poll results carry a 4 percent margin of error.

While Petaluma's current budget is balanced, the city is facing a projected $2.3 million deficit by 2017. Though sales tax revenue from the recently opened East Washington Place shopping center and the soon-to-open Deer Creek Village shopping center is expected to help fund street and infrastructure projects, a recent push by the state's employee pension organization, CalPERS, to fully fund its future liabilities has raised the city's bills for employee benefits. With aging emergency vehicles, a run-down police station and the worst city roads in the county, Petaluma is facing a significant financial shortfall in the coming years.

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

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Petaluma's sales tax rate as 8 percent, when it is actually 8.25 percent. A 1-cent sales tax increase would bring Petaluma's sales tax rate to 9.25 percent.)

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