By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg voters will have two extra issues to ponder when they fill out their ballots in November, including
whether to increase the sales tax by half a percentage point.
City Council members on Monday night unanimously voted to put the proposed sales tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot, saying it is necessary to preserve vital, core services.
“We’re in a very difficult situation. We won’t cut our way out,” Councilman Tom Chambers said.
“We badly need a resource to help us balance our budget in the future,” Councilman Jim Wood said.
A separate ballot measure approved Monday by the council involves extending the life of the city’s Urban Growth Boundary, set to expire at the end of 2016, to Dec. 31, 2030.
Voters adopted the boundary in 1996, which essentially prohibits development outside of the city’s urban service area.
All other cities in the county have similar voter-adopted boundaries, which are intended to prevent urban sprawl and avoid leapfrog development as well as to protect agriculture and open space.
If the urban growth limit is extended to 2030, it will expire at the same time as the city’s general plan, the document that guides development.
It was the sales tax measure that engendered the most discussion Monday among council members, who said Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed sales tax increase on the ballot will do little for cities, including Healdsburg.
“I’m not a big tax guy. I don’t think any of us are big tax people,” Mayor Gary Plass said of his aversion to imposing new taxes. “The governor’s tax won’t do any of us any good.”
“It’s sad that it’s come to this,” he said. “The state for all intents and purposes has abandoned us. They are taking, not giving.”
If the increase is approved, the sales tax in Healdsburg would go from the current 8 percent to 8.5 percent. The extra half a percentage point would automatically expire in 10 years.
It would bring Healdsburg in line with Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sonoma, which now share the highest sales tax rate in the county at 8.5 percent as a result of voter-approved ballot measures.
Healdsburg’s tax increase, which would require a simple majority of voters for approval, is projected to bring in an additional $1 million annually and would avert similar deficits that the city has had in recent years.
City officials blame those deficits on a weak economy, manifested in a decline of local development activity; decreases in sales, property and hotel bed taxes; and “raids” of city revenue by the state. Increased expenses in personnel, supplies and services have contributed to the problem.
Reserves have been used to bridge the gap, but those are expected to be exhausted in three years if things don’t change.
City administrators listed various steps taken to cut expenses, including shedding staff.
Since 2009, the city has gone from 137 full-time and 20 part-time positions to 113 full time and 16 part time.
The city’s recently adopted budget eliminated three more positions and downgraded three to five jobs.
A full-time police officer, a dispatcher and two part-time firefighter slots were eliminated.
Despite the belt tightening, the adopted general fund budget for 2012-2013 is facing a projected deficit of $808,000.
Police, mid-level managers and some non-public safety employees have not had cost-of-living adjustments in four to five years and all employees are contributing more to the cost of their pensions and health care plans, City Manager Marjie Pettus said.
A consultant’s poll conducted in February indicated voters would be willing to back a sales tax measure to pay for public safety and street and infrastructure improvements.
The only bit of disagreement Monday came from Chambers who said he would have preferred a sales tax measure that sunsets after five years.
He also would preferred a measure that would have spent some of the new tax revenue on fixing streets and sidewalks. But that would have required a two-thirds voter approval because it would be considered a special tax for a specific purpose.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.