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Will one vote knock SR sales tax off track?



Conventional political wisdom holds that voters will not pass a local ballot measure to raise taxes unless their political leaders all agree that it’s absolutely necessary.

Gary Wysocky

Cotati and Rohnert Park, which recently approved half-cent sales tax increases to help close budget gaps, enjoyed city councils staunchly backing the measures.

But in Santa Rosa, where parks are turning brown, street lights are dark, and a $3.8 million budget gap widens every day, consensus about whether to place a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot remains elusive.

First, there was Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre, who despite significant pressure from her colleagues voted against spending $25,000 on a polling firm to explore voters’ appetite for a tax hike.

Then in late June, after a pollster explained that a sales tax had a better chance of success than a complex utility tax, it was Councilman Gary Wysocky who balked.

“I think the community does not want to see a split council on this,” Mayor Susan Gorin said at the time. “We absolutely have to be united with our employees and moving forward to present a compelling case to our community.”

But Wysocky, expressing a preference for the utility users’ tax, voted against the sales tax measure. It passed 6-1, and returns to the council Tuesday for a final vote.

Whether Wysocky can be brought around to support the measure, and what the council will do if he does not, are open questions leading into Tuesday’s council vote.

Wysocky late last week continued to express strong reservations about the tax, especially given the city’s limited progress on gaining 5 percent wage concessions from its employees.

“I haven’t seen sufficient concessions, and I think the citizen wants to see them, too,” he said.

The City Council in past months passed a $313 million budget for the year beginning July, including a $109 million general fund that contained a $3.8 million deficit. The plan was to bridge the gap with $2.5 million in employee concessions and $1.3 million from some kind of November revenue measure.

A group of senior city staff, council members, veteran political consultants and pollsters met in a series of private meetings at city hall to decide what questions to ask in the poll and settle the final details of the ballot measure.

In its current form, the quarter-cent tax would require a simple majority support from voters, would raise about $6 million per year and would expire after eight years. The funds would be used for general city purposes, and their use would be audited. Five of the seven council members would need to support the measure for it to be placed the Nov. 4 ballot.

The staff report prepared for the Tuesday meeting notes that general fund spending has decreased by $30 million over the past two years, and 180 city positions have been eliminated. Sales tax revenue collected by the city has fallen from $32 million to $24 million a year.

It also notes that a sales tax is broad-based, does not apply to basic commodities such as food and prescription drugs and would raise about one-third of the proceeds from tourists.

Political consultant Herb Williams said he and fellow political consultant Terry Price were asked by Mayor Gorin to attend several meetings held to discuss the poll and the potential ballot measure. Williams ran the successful Measure O sales tax campaign in 2004 to beef up the city’s police, fire and gang-prevention programs.

Williams said he and the other private citizens have been participating without fee, with the understanding that under certain conditions he and Price would work together on any political campaign to pass the measure. Williams said his condition was that the council be unanimous in its vote for the measure.

At least one of those conditions now appears in jeopardy, Williams said. “I have concerns that Wysocky may not vote for it,” he said.

Wysocky said he never makes up his mind until he hears all the public testimony on a subject, and Tuesday will be no exception.

He said he has a problem asking voters to approve such a measure when the city has yet to show much progress on salary concessions.

To date, only one bargaining unit, the Santa Rosa Police Officers’ Association, has come forward with a 5 percent concession by allowing the city to eliminate six vacant positions and giving up contractual protection from layoffs in exchange for a one-year contract extension without pay cuts. Wysocky voted against that extension, noting that pay and benefits were unaffected.

In addition to his concern about the concession, Wysocky said he’s not comfortable with the amount proposed to be raised. The budget envisioned $1.3 million being raised from new revenue, and now the council is being asked to support a plan to raise $6 million a year for eight years.

“This is overfunding what the budget gap is,” he said. “I want to balance the budget as much as anyone else, but to do it all on the backs of the people? I’m a skeptical accountant. I haven’t seen it.”

But Gorin said there are good reasons to raise more than just enough to cover the current gap. The city has drawn down its general fund reserve and it needs to be replenished, and the state may soon lean further on local governments to solve its budget debacle, she said.

Long-range forecasts show that cities will continue to be cash-strapped for years, and services such as parks, pools, senior centers and public safety will remain in jeopardy unless something changes, Gorin said.

“I think it’s imperative to give our residents the option of supporting a revenue measure so we can begin to restore some of the cuts that we’ve made and support the services they deserve,” she said.

Councilwoman Jane Bender agreed, noting that the city has cut back so far on road maintenance that at some point costs will rise because roads will deteriorate so badly they’ll need to be rebuilt instead if merely resurfaced.

“By delaying as much as we’ve delayed, it’s going to take things a long time to get built back up,” she said.
Gorin also said Wysocky is off-base if he believes the city isn’t making headway in its efforts to get concessions from its employees. “I know that a number of our units are coming forward right now,” Gorin said, though she declined to be more specific. “I’m saying there is progress being made.”

Despite her earlier statements about the absolute need for unanimity, Gorin said she’s realizing with this council that may not always be possible.

“I can’t be held responsible for other council members,” she said. “We may have unanimity yet, you never know.”

Councilwoman Vas Dupre said she doesn’t think a lack of unanimity is a fatal flaw. She didn’t vote to hire the pollster because she would have preferred to spend the money locally, she said. But she wasn’t worried that her vote would turn voters against the measure in the fall.

“This is a democracy,” she said. “We don’t all have to walk in lock-step.”

15 Responses to “Will one vote knock SR sales tax off track?”

  1. Hans Dippel says:

    To put a sales tax measure on the ballot, which I totally disagree with, is going to cost more of the public’s money. Our money.
    Then,the City will spend more money, our money, to campaign in favor of the measure.
    We need the leadership on Council to stop spending money, our money, wastefully.
    When will someone on the Council do the right thing and say “Stop”!

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  2. Hans Dippel says:

    “Sales tax revenue collected by the city has fallen from $32 million to $24 million a year”. Instead of raising taxes, maybe we should find out where people are spending their money. That is a survey worth $25K.

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  3. Political Scientist says:

    Correction: By Zuma I meant Kay. Though I’m pretty sure you’re the same person.

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  4. Political Scientist says:

    Zuma: Your qualifier in the third sentence invalidates much of your post: “if I’m right”. In my experience of dealing with you, you’re rarely (if ever) right.

    And in your last paragraph you again go back to the Lowes vote, showing how caught up on a separate issue you are. Maybe you should get over it.

    As for this sales tax increase, Wysocky is of course correct. Public Safety has become too lucrative of a career, protected by contracts. If we can’t rein in that spending in a fiscal crisis, will we ever be able to?

    Let’s be honest here.

    How dangerous (comparatively) is Santa Rosa really? How many public safety officials per year are seriously injured? I would love to go to one year’s worth of school and come out making 160k per year. Sadly, that’s not the route I chose (though if I had known what I know now, I just might have).

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  5. Kay Tokerud says:

    The political scientist says I’m right about Wysocky. Isn’t the proposed quarter cent sales tax to be used by the City of Santa Rosa for the general benefit of the citizens. If I’m right, then Wysocky is more concerned about securing funds for Sonoma County who will be receiving the $10 vehicle licensing fee, if it passes. Isn’t Wysocky representing the people of Santa Rosa? Or is he still primarily interested in securing money for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition for the Safe Routes to School Program? He’s the only councilmember that is against getting more money for Santa Rosa.

    At today’s meeting, Wysocky droned on about how regressive the sales tax will be. How regressive is an across the board $10 vehicle licensing fee that charges the same amount for every car or truck no matter what the cost of the vehicle, and without any regard for how many miles are driven? The Dept. of motor vehicles at least charges according to the value of a vehicle. This tax, or fee, is extremely regressive. A $10/year fee is equal to a quarter cent sales tax on $4,000 per year in taxable purchases. For many low income people, the $10 fee will be greater than the additional amount they would pay for a quarter cent sales tax.

    Gary Wysocky is Santa Rosa’s representative to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and did vote in favor of putting the $10 license fee on the ballot. It’s troubling to me that he lacks loyalty to Santa Rosa. He voted against a new Lowe’s store that would have increased sales tax for our city and demonstrated more support for an out of city store, Freidman’s, whose sales tax goes to the county. I hope the new councilmembers we elect in November will put our city first.

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  6. Hans Dippel says:

    The City’s survey finds that 37% of 400 people asked definitely support a tax increase. Only 148 citizens out of 165,000. What am I missing?

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  7. Hans Dippel says:

    I am wondering where the City Council thinks the citizens of Santa Rosa are going to come up with the money to support another tax increase. The majority of us who live (and vote) here still work for a living. Even with the tax increase, we will still have fewer services.

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  8. Political Scientist says:

    You’re right about Wysocky: the political ideologies that caused him to join groups prior to being elected should be hidden once he’s accountable to the voters. I mean, heaven forbid we allow progressives, who have fought for their views for years, to express them when they can actually influence change!

    All your point reaffirmed is that the causes and groups he advocated for prior to taking office are still being represented IN office…he is fighting for the constituents who elected him.

    Don’t we usually consider that good Democracy?

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  9. Kay Tokerud says:

    Could it be that Gary Wysocky is opposing the 1/4 cent sales tax because he doesn’t want anything competing with the $10 vehicle licensing fee that will also be on the ballot? The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition stands to receive millions from having the safe routes to school contracts. He is the former president of SCBC. The SCBC is a political lobbying non-profit group that helped him get elected. It’s payback time. Too bad the $10 vehicle fee isn’t entirely going to the bus service, then I would vote for it. I can’t see any justification for giving Santa Rosa more money since they regularly waste money on things most people don’t care about. The proposed 1/4 cent tax should also have a sunset in 3 years if put on the ballot. Since Gary Wysocky thinks the only number that matters is 4, why should the other councilmembers care if he won’t vote with them? If this was Cotati, there’d be a recall of Wysocky.

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  10. Council Watcher says:

    Mayor Gorin states that the State may take more money from the City anyway. So why fatten the pot. Only fools would would give the city more money now. Remwmber measure M Mayor Gorin, those funds were to be used for improved police sevice until the council needed it. How much are going to pay your new City manager over the next five years before she retires? Please – the voters have had it.

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  11. Richard Canini says:

    A sales tax takes food out of the mouths of the poorest among us. The homeless and low wage workers regularly eat at fast food restaurants. They have little choice. Restaurant meals are taxed.

    Business meals are tax deductible. Have steak and lobster at home, no tax. Have a fast food burger, 9.5% tax.

    The Santa Rosa City Council has not used our public funds prudently. For example, it spent about $550,000 for a preliminary [incomplete] landscape plan for 1.5 acres at Old Courthouse Square. The actual construction will cost more than $10 million. Now the city council [except for Vice Mayor Wysocky] supports a sales tax increase.

    It’s wrong to tax food out of the mouth of the poor.

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  12. Todd johnson says:

    Is it possible to spend only what we have?
    We are in a recession.fiscal responsibility anyone?

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  13. Tom Lynch says:

    Prof. Robert Eyler at Sonoma State did a study last year noting that since 2000 the average household income in Sonoma County has been on the decline. Meanwhile many in the upper tier of public service have seen their salaries and benefits double. Not so much the rank and file line workers, but a lot of management and public safety.

    In order to preserve our public services and the jobs of younger less senior government workers we need paycuts and pension reform…not a bunch of budgetry gimmicks and sleight of hand. The private sector is having to reinvent itself in order to survive, so must government.

    I think as a progressive and a CPA Councilman Wysocky is taking a very practical and principled stand. The City of Santa Rosa including City staff are fortunate to have someone with courage representing them.

    “Wisdom is the sum of all our failures.”

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  14. @Gary says:

    Gary Wysocky is the George Barich of Santa Rosa and should have the same fate the public made for Barich.

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  15. ()() says:

    Question: Why are sales on ebay and Craigslist so popular?

    Answer: Because in most cases there is no sales tax.

    Internet sales are the reason that The Good Guys, Comp USA and Circuit City are all out of business. High local sales taxes drove buyers away from those stores.

    So has anybody considered that a 1/4% increase in sales tax could result in an overall drop in sales?

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