By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A new survey of Cloverdale voters shows just barely enough support for a city-wide utility tax that could help the city dig out of
its financial hole.
Despite being informed that Cloverdale is projected to have annual deficits of up to $1 million for the next five years, only a narrow majority said they would approve a utility tax to help out.
About 52 percent of respondents indicated they would vote “yes” for a ballot measure establishing a 3 percent utility users tax.
Although that exceeds the majority threshold to pass such a measure, it is within the survey’s 5.7 percent margin of error, so support is questionable.
Consultants said the likelihood of Cloverdale voters taxing themselves improved since the last survey in 2009, but “methodical, proactive community engagement is necessary to build consensus toward a viable measure.”
Consultants recommended no measure be placed on the ballot earlier than November 2014.
The findings from the $30,750 survey were presented this week to the City Council, although it prompted little discussion among council members.
City officials are hoping to get a clearer picture of the $5.7 million general fund budget by next month before recommending any course of action.
Even if property taxes — the main source of revenue — show signs of improvement as anticipated, Mayor Joe Palla said Friday, “I don’t anticipate the property tax rates to go up as fast as they went down. Cloverdale was hit harder than most cities within the county.”
And the city essentially has no emergency reserves.
Palla said a utility tax that was allowed to expire seven years ago generated in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $300,000 per year.
If reinstated, he said it’s uncertain which utilities might be taxed — whether it be PG&E, cable TV, telephone, water and sewer bills.
“We have not had that conversation,” he said.
A possible sales tax increase is not seen as a viable way to raise revenue significantly because of the low level of retail activity in the largely bedroom community.
Over the past seven years, Palla said the city has reduced staffing by 25 percent.
“We’re down to a skeleton crew. There is nowhere else to cut,” he said.
The study attempted to gauge what services residents value most, as well as their general attitude toward city government and the community.
Preventing cuts to 911 emergency response, as well as cuts to crime investigations, were seen as the top priority for any new revenue, along with enhancing Cloverdale’s fiscal stability.
Consistent with findings from a survey taken four years ago, a majority, or 53 percent, agreed that “things in Cloverdale are headed in the right direction,” compared with 50 percent in 2009.
But economic concerns are seen as the most serious problem facing Cloverdale. The lack of business and jobs in the city was perceived as an extremely serious, or a very serious problem by 82 percent surveyed.
There is also a sentiment that Cloverdale is not business friendly. Only 42 percent agreed that the town is business friendly, while 52 percent disagreed.
For City Manager Paul Cayler, the findings “validated the basic strategy the city has been pursuing the last nine months,” since he took over the job.
The focus, he said, has been economic development and jobs, being business friendly “and doing whatever we can to encourage business expansion and relocation to Cloverdale.”
Mayor Palla said council goals over the last three to four years have emphasized job creation and economic development, but “it takes time as well.”
Approval for Cloverdale government agencies also improved slightly since the last survey. About 76 percent strongly approve, or somewhat approve, of the job being done by the Cloverdale Police Department — about the same percentage as the public works department.
Approximately 68 percent said they approved overall of the job being done by Cloverdale government.
“Most of the people are satisfied with the services we are providing,” Palla said.
The survey of 300 random selectively voters was done by Oakland-based Lew Edwards Group and FM3.
It was conducted between Sept. 29 and Oct. 15 with interviews via landline and cellphone, in English and Spanish.