By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Town Hall meeting next week on a proposed sales tax increase in Healdsburg is billed as strictly informational, hosted by city staff to explain the ballot measure.
But Tim Meinken, the only City Council candidate opposed to the sales tax hike, is skeptical that top city officials can give a balanced presentation on the topic.
“I find it hard to believe they will present just the facts,” said Meinken, who was rebuffed in his request to be a speaker at Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting at City Hall.
City Manager Marjie Pettus, who is giving the presentation on Measure V, said it will simply be a factual presentation about the Nov. 6 sales tax initiative, with no advocacy one way or another.
“It’s a brief PowerPoint that presents information on why we felt the sales tax initiative was necessary and then we’ll allow the public to ask questions,” she said.
The City Council put the half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot earlier this year and individual council members have urged voters to pass it. But beyond that, state law prohibits city officials from using public funds or resources to support or oppose a ballot measure.
Legal experts say the courts have made it clear that government cannot use public money to take sides in a campaign because it gives an unfair advantage that can distort the electoral process.
“We are not allowed to advocate a position one way or another,” Pettus said of the narrow path city staff has to tread.
But cities can prepare and disseminate a fair and impartial analysis of a measure.
Meinken on Wednesday said he asked to be involved in the presentation, since he is the only candidate to have come out against Measure V.
“They need to look at both sides of the issue,” he said.
But Pettus rejected his request, saying Tuesday’s meeting is not intended as a forum or debate.
She said she will answer questions, but not allow endorsements, or “people to make statements of opinion on the measure.”
The sales tax measure would raise an estimated $1 million annually if passed by a majority of voters. It would increase the sales tax in Healdsburg from 8 to 8.5 percent for 10 years.
City Council members say it will help offset an $800,000 deficit in this year’s general fund.
Mayor Gary Plass said without Measure V passing, the city will have to dig deeper into its dwindling reserves. He said it is a way to bridge the budget gap and the revenue can be used to repair streets and bolster police and fire services, among other things.
“We’re starting to feel the effects of having to cut budgets,” he said, citing slower police response on some calls, such as car burglaries.
But Meinken, a winery owner and former partner in a pension and actuarial consulting firm, said the sales tax is too much to add on top of other taxes, and could deter retail sales, especially for the city’s truck and auto dealers.
He said there are other ways to deal with the budget deficit, including becoming more business friendly and increasing the business base.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214or firstname.lastname@example.org.