By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Like many Sonoma County cities over the past several years, Petaluma has dramatically cut spending as revenues slid and costs climbed.
Residents have watched the city’s pothole-riddled roads further deteriorate, broken street lights go unrepaired, parks grow weedy, maintenance put off. Specialized units in the police department, like DARE and school resource officers, have been pulled back to patrol functions.
City Councilwoman Tiffany Renee said the time has come to stop simply cutting, cutting, cutting.
“It’s a matter of seeing if people want to continue with the status quo of budget cuts and rundown infrastructure or if we want to bootstrap ourselves up and take care of ourselves,” she said.
Renee supports asking Petaluma voters to approve a sales-tax measure on the November ballot.
Similarly, Councilwoman Teresa Barrett supports increasing the city’s transient-occupancy tax.
Either tax could have a difficult time passing, some political observers say, given the belt-tightening everyday citizens also have had to endure and at least two statewide tax hikes expected to be on the ballot.
The council will discuss the tax issues at a special meeting June 25 at City Hall. The deadline is Aug. 10 to put an item on the November ballot.
“We’ve tried very hard to insulate the community from the cuts in services and to do our best to make ends meet,” Renee said. “We’re not able to insulate the community as much anymore. We have to go to the community and let them know what’s on the horizon in terms of the impact.”
Petaluma’s sales tax is 8 percent, among the lowest in the county with Cloverdale and Windsor.
Sonoma voters just approved a half-percent increase to 8.5 percent. Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati are all at 8.5 percent.
Sebastopol’s tax is 8.25 percent, but voters will be asked in November to increase that to 8.75 percent. Healdsburg will ask its residents for a half-cent increase, to 8.5 percent.
Renee said the city needs to look at a minimum of a half-percent tax increase — but she said she may suggest a 1 percent tax to make up for the loss of redevelopment funds to the state.
A 1 percent tax increase would add another $1 to a $100 purchase, or $300 on a $30,000 purchase.
Councilman Mike Healy and Mayor David Glass said they aren’t completely sold on the idea of a sales-tax increase, especially if there is organized opposition as the lodging industry has promised with a hotel tax increase. Councilman Mike Harris, the board’s only Republican, said he won’t support raising taxes.
Barrett said a TOT increase, a nightly tax on lodgers at hotels, motels, inns and campgrounds, must be part of the discussion.
A two-percentage point increase to the TOT would bring in about $200,000 a year. A sales-tax increase could bring in more than $2 million.
“Some on the council could be dragged along if we reach closure with the bargaining units on a second-tier pension,” Healy said. “If we can’t do that, I don’t think it would stand a snowball’s chance.”
Bargaining continues with all of the city’s employee unions, although no agreements have been reached on concessions to existing pay and benefits or longer-term savings on pensions.
Brian Sobel, a political consultant and a former Petaluma council member, said voters may support a quarter-cent tax with an expiration date — but only with a promise of how the money will be spent.
“The key to getting a sales tax passed is to carefully articulate the needs and how the money is going to be expended,” he said. “But I’d recommend anyone wanting to do a sales tax increase poll Petaluma.
“There’s a tolerance level for everything. You may find a quarter-cent is fine but a half-cent is a deal-killer.”