By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg is joining a growing number of cities looking for a sales tax increase to help salvage their teetering budgets.
City Council members on Tuesday agreed to proceed with a November ballot measure that would increase the current 8 percent sales tax by an additional half-percent.
If approved, it would generate an estimated $1 million per year in new revenue.
“We can’t balance the budget on employee cuts and salary cuts alone and with what the State of California is taking from us,” Mayor Gary Plass said.
Plass noted that a sales tax hike seems more tolerable than another route the city had been exploring — charging drivers to park downtown.
“Judging from the conversations I’ve had on parking meters versus a sales tax measure, there’s overall a very positive response to a half-cent sales tax measure,” he said.
A consultant’s poll of sample voters in February also showed enough likely support to win passage for the increased sales tax.
The council was recently informed the city’s projected deficit has grown from $984,000 for the current budget year to $1.3 million, as a result of the loss of redevelopment funds. Next year’s general fund deficit is calculated at $812,000.
“It’s not with great pleasure that any of us look at putting this on the ballot,” said Councilman Jim Wood.
Critics have previously said they are against a sales tax measure, arguing the city needs to do more to address rising employee pension and benefit costs.
But council members counter that in the past several years Healdsburg has reduced personnel costs by $2.1 million as a result of employee concessions and workforce reductions.
Healdsburg is not alone in asking residents and visitors to dig a little deeper into their pockets when they shop in town.
On Tuesday, voters in the city of Sonoma will be asked to increase the sales tax by a half-cent for the next five years.
The Sebastopol City Council at its next meeting will consider whether to place a half-cent sales tax hike on the November ballot. It would be in addition to the quarter-cent sales tax hike passed by voters in 2004 that brought the sales tax rate to 8.25 percent.
Santa Rosa, Cotati and Rohnert Park share the highest tax rate in the county — 8.5 percent — as a result of previously approved ballot measures .
Santa Rosa has two existing sales tax measures in effect. Voters in 2004 approved Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax for public safety, gang prevention and youth programs that expires after 20 years.
In 2010, Santa Rosa voters approved Measure P, an additional quarter-cent sales tax hike to benefit an array of city services that expires five years after enactment.
Cotati voters in 2010 approved a five-year, half-cent sales tax hike after the city declared a financial emergency.
In Rohnert Park, voters the same year approved a half-cent sales tax hike with a five-year sunset clause.
Healdsburg council members agreed Tuesday that the proposed sales tax bump should be in effect for 10 years.
“It’s going to be a slow turnaround,” said Councilman Steve Babb, describing the outlook for the economy and Healdsburg’s budget.
The council also agreed the money should go into the general fund, as a general tax, which requires a majority of voters approve it.
If the ballot measure specified how the money was to be spent, it would be considered a “special tax” subject to two-thirds voter approval.
City Manager Marjie Pettus said there could also be accompanying ballot language that the council intends to spend the new revenue on public safety and street maintenance, for example.
The specifics of the ballot language will be taken up at an upcoming council meeting, along with a formal vote to place the measure on the ballot.