By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In a thus far notably quiet Rohnert Park campaign season, one would be hard pressed to tell that $3 million a year for the city budget is at stake Nov. 5.
On that day’s election ballot is Measure A, a bid to indefinitely extend a half-percent city sales tax that voters approved in 2010. Officials credit the tax with helping restore Rohnert Park to fiscal stability.
If the measure passes, the tax would remain in place until the council voted unanimously to end it or voters chose to do so through another ballot measure.
No organized opposition has surfaced thus far. And with a little more than two weeks to go before polls open, supporters have just begun erecting signs and knocking on voters’ doors.
The tax brings in just over $3 million a year for the general fund and originally was pitched as a five-year stopgap measure to help the city climb back to solid fiscal ground.2
But Rohnert Park still faces a deficit of between $1.4 and $1.8 million. Its finances also have been hampered by the state-ordered dissolution of redevelopment agencies, which resulted in the loss of millions of dollars used for affordable housing, targeted spending to boost economic development, and infrastructure projects.
So officials are making no bones about how crucial maintaining the tax is to them.
“It’s extremely important,” said Mayor Pam Stafford. “It helps keep so many things going.”
She acknowledged that asking to make permanent what was a short-term tax is hardly an ideal political position, but she characterized the measure as continuing a tax rather than adding a new one.
“I’m not big on throwing taxes out there at people; I really don’t like to do that,” she said. “But working with our budget as intimately as I do, I know exactly where we get our money from and we just really need this to continue.”
The tax measure won in 2010 with the support of 55 percent of voters, raising the city’s sales tax rate to 8.75 percent. It has been used to fund police and fire services, operations at the senior, community and performing arts centers, and roadwork.
“We have no way of making up $3 million in revenue in the next two years,” said City Manager Gabe Gonzalez, who joined the city the year the tax measure was passed.
“We would basically have to look at complete elimination of services, and further reduction of services” without that revenue, said Gonzalez, who leaves for a new position in Kansas on Nov. 7.
The Rohnert Park Public Safety Officers Association has thrown its weight behind the measure, as it did with the original tax. The union has paid for signs throughout the city, and officers have joined in neighborhood walks to rally support from residents.
“We’re prepared to pay or contribute enough money to make sure the word gets out on the importance of passing Measure A,” said Sgt. Jeff Nicks, the union’s president.
The indefinite nature of the extension is off-putting to some residents.
“If there were an end date, I’d vote for it so the city could make up the rest of the money that they’re still in the hole for,” said Lorreen Abbott.
“But the way it stands, I’m not going to vote for it, because it’s not going to end unless someone does something to overturn it,” said Abbott, 68, a retired Santa Rosa city employee.
Other voters are still making up their minds.
Sonoma State University junior Amairani Hernandez, 19, said she has yet to study the measure in full. But as a new city resident — she moved this year from Los Angeles — her first impulse is to support it.
“I’d probably just vote to keep it the same because it seems like the community needs it,” Hernandez said.
Others have decided.
Shawn Jackson, an attorney, said the measure’s strongest suit is that, as a city sales tax, its revenues cannot be accessed by the state.
“I don’t think there’s a choice; the choice is either a reduction in services or an increase in revenue,” Jackson said. “And the only increase in revenue that makes sense is the one that the state and the feds can’t touch.”
The tax measure needs a simple majority to pass.
A sense among voters that things have stabilized after years of crisis may account for the lack of controversy, said Brian Sobel, a political consultant in Petaluma.
“And whatever pain was incurred (with the sales tax) was incurred a while ago,” he said. “People have a much greater tendency to say, ‘As long as something’s not being mismanaged, I can continue to support it.’”
An opinion poll commissioned by the city this summer found that 67 percent of residents thought the city was headed in the right direction, while 21 percent thought it was on the wrong track.
(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)