By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.
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.”